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BRUMMETT ONLINE: Is our hope eroding?

by John Brummett | April 20, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

Social media blew up Monday night over Little Rock in outrage at the news of Baker Kurrus’ unceremonious dumping by the Hutchinson administration as superintendent of the city’s public schools.

Suddenly I remembered having written months ago that Kurrus, working by state appointment via the state takeover on account of academic distress, was the “last best hope” for the Little Rock schools.

He was starting the day early, greeting arriving Baseline Elementary students with “holas,” and staying up late stewing over an email blast accusing him of trying to close elementary schools he probably needed to close, but hadn’t decided to close.

Kurrus was uncommonly invested emotionally and energetically in the schools. He could be intense, abrupt and fiery, and friends worried a little about him. He wasn’t getting enough sleep. But his heart was right and his business-trained and Harvard-honed leadership skills were sound. He was oddly ingratiating. He sang a Leon Russell song at a commencement address. He peppered faculty and staff with motivational emails.

So I went back and checked what I wrote. It was in December. And it actually was that I couldn’t say Kurrus was the last best hope. I said it was always possible, no matter how remotely, that someone similarly committed and invested and able would come along after him.

So is that person Michael Poore, who resigned Monday night as Bentonville’s superintendent to replace Kurrus — a dumping executed with a high degree of clumsiness by educational commissioner Johnny Key, who acted with the clumsy acquiescence of Gov. Asa Hutchinson?

Little Rock can either hope so — that Poore is another last best hope — or just give the heck up on its schools.

Not much choice there, is there?

Here was Key’s belated explanation at a news conference Tuesday for his Hutchinson-sanctioned action that infuriated Little Rock and, in so doing, managed maybe for the first time in decades to galvanize Little Rock on something having to do with its public schools:

The first order of business as he became state education director and inherited the Little Rock takeover’s infancy was to fix the district financially and organizationally. He said Kurrus was the right man for that, by personal skill as well as experience on the school board and engagement in state-appointed consulting roles. But that period is over. Kurrus has succeeded. Now it’s time to move to a strict academic emphasis, and Poore, who ran a big and troubled district in Colorado Springs before coming to Bentonville, is the man for that next stage.

There are two very tough issues.

The first is that Little Rock’s schools have been rocked for decades by instability in leadership. So now Key manages to reinforce that instability by ousting a popular local man beginning to show progress and to whom the community was warming.

Even if Kurrus’ initial job was understood to be strictly transitional, a better grade of leadership at the state level might have been reflected in the flexibility to accede to the positive dynamic and not dump him for the next phase, but keep him well into it.

Sometimes leadership is abandoning best-laid plans and adapting to new circumstances.

The second issue is whether this actually is all about Kurrus’ vocal opposition to charter-school proliferation, as well as to Key’s allegiance to business interests who champion charter schools and school choice.

I asked Kurrus on Monday night if he could explain to me how the state intended to restore academic performance in the regular Little Rock schools while approving a mass exodus of students to new and expanded charter schools.

“No sir,” he said.

On one hand, the eStem charter system in Little Rock is producing positive results and has a waiting list of 6,000 students. It is difficult to keep that many children and parents waiting for the same opportunity they see other children getting. So expansion seems compelling.

But on the other hand, it’s difficult to rebuild the regular Little Rock public schools while you erode them.

Some of these business leaders who call themselves education reformers believe the original purpose of charter schools — to show regular public schools new and effective methods — is out-of-date. They have determined that regular public schools are too entrenched and stubborn to change. So they seek universal public charters.

Is that what this man from Bentonville, home to the charter-crazed Walton Foundation, is being dispatched into Little Rock to accomplish?

The signals are mixed. I’m told that Poore most usually does what the business community wants. But I’m also told he has a history of leading regular public schools amid charter competition.

And I also am advised reliably that the Waltons, for example, were as surprised by the Kurrus ouster as anyone.

So the real story of his appointment remains unclear.

Whether Little Rock wanted or felt it needed him — that’s clear.

It didn’t.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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