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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Charles Armstrong (bottom left), D-Little Rock, asks a question of Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus (standing right) during a public hearing held by Little Rock area legislators at the state Capitol on Monday to address contention over Kurrus’ impending departure from the district. Legislators seated from left are Rep. James Sorvillo, R-Little Rock; Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock; and Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock. - Photo by Stephen B. Thornton

Baker Kurrus, who is being replaced as Little Rock School District superintendent when his contract expires June 30, said Monday that he would like to continue to work with the district in a nonpaying role -- but only if he can support the district's guiding policies.

"I am not willing to accept a role in anything unless I know where we are starting from and unless I have a clear indication of where we are headed," Kurrus said in response to a question about his future during a public forum hosted by Pulaski County legislators on the school district's leadership change.

About 150 teachers, parents, education organization leaders and displaced Little Rock School Board members attended the 4 p.m. event. City Director Kathy Webb, former Little Rock Superintendent Morris Holmes and Clay Fendley, an attorney who represented the district in a past legal battle over charter schools, were among the speakers.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced last month that he is replacing Kurrus -- a Little Rock businessman and Harvard-educated attorney whom he appointed to the school district job last year -- with Bentonville School District Superintendent Michael Poore. Key made the superintendent change for the state-controlled district without prior notice to or advice from Little Rock community members, large numbers of whom have rallied to support Kurrus.

Key, who was invited but was unable to attend the Monday forum at the state Capitol, has said Poore, who will be paid $225,000 a year, is an educator with the experience necessary to raise student achievement in the district, which was put in state control in January 2015 because six of its 48 schools were state-labeled as academically distressed.

But the commissioner has also praised Kurrus, who was paid $150,000, for his work this past year in strengthening the district's organizational structure and its finances. Key said he would like Kurrus to have an ongoing role in the district -- be it formal or informal. Poore has also said he would like Kurrus to play a part in the operation of the district, which has 25,550 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, told Kurrus that the most frequent question she is asked is whether he wishes to accept a role in the system.

Kurrus said that is a question that he continues to ask himself.

"I will say this ... I want to be part of the process to build, but I want to build from a strong foundation. What that means to me right now is I want to understand exactly how we got to where we are. Frankly, I don't quite understand that, but I hope to and I will. I have a wonderful working relationship with the commissioner. I've met Mr. Poore. He is certainly an easy guy for me to talk to."

Kurrus said he must know what the policies are that will guide or compel the district.

"If I can support those policies and we operate on a firm foundation where we know that we can build and build consistently for the long term, then I am willing to play a role. I don't think that will be a paid position. I think that is inappropriate. I don't think that would work for me right now.

"We are going to talk," he continued. "I hope to get with the commissioner this week and maybe with Mr. Poore at the end of the week to really thoughtfully consider how we can build a strong school district, but there will have to be some indication about the policies and the direction before I sign up."

He then joked: "I really feel like Mr. Poore and I have both been invited to a shotgun wedding."

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked Kurrus whether he would be willing to continue in the superintendent's job should Key and Gov. Asa Hutchinson "walk this back."

"You can't unring the bell," Kurrus responded. "It's hard to work for people who don't want you to work for them."

Key notified Kurrus that his contract would not be renewed after Kurrus had argued to the Arkansas Board of Education against the nearly 3,000-seat expansion of the eSTEM and LISA charter school systems within the Little Rock district's boundaries. The independently run public charter schools have historically pulled more affluent, higher-achieving students from the Little Rock district, leaving the traditional school system with a greater percentage of high-need students and fewer resources to educate them.

Key has denied that Kurrus is being replaced because of his charter school stance.

Chesterfield told Kurrus that determining Poore's position on open-enrollment charter schools is "like working with jello."

Kurrus said they have only talked twice but that Poore is not the policymaker and will operate under the same constraints as Kurrus in that he will carry out policies and even influence policymaking, but ultimately the state education commissioner is the policymaker for the district, which operates without an elected school board.

"Ultimately, the community has to decide: Do we want a strong, vigorous, traditional school system with charter schools that have a limited purpose? Or do we think it is productive to have large charter systems that essentially act as alternative systems paid for by the state?"

Rep. Charles Armstrong, D-Little Rock, asked Kurrus whether his lack of experience as an educator was a weakness.

Kurrus responded that he never pretended to be an expert in curriculum and instruction and that he doesn't know how to arrange an elementary school library or teach first-graders how to read.

"But I know very, very good people who do," he said. "I tried in my role to set up a system where they were empowered and engaged, fully authorized, given clear, articulate goals and resources. Don't micromanage the people. Micromanage the process so the people are set up to succeed. That's what I did, and I don't think I was held back by the fact that I don't understand some of the things that experienced superintendents do understand.

"If I was in a smaller district where I didn't have the resources we have in Little Rock, it certainly would be a huge impediment. But I'm surrounded by world-class educators who sometimes weren't fully empowered to do everything they knew how to do. I didn't get in their way and I didn't pretend to tell them how to do their jobs, but I did help them get organized so they could focus on the things they knew how to do."

He said the district, with its $300 million budget, 4,000 employees and 60 schools and support sites, "is not a mom-and-pop organization. The one thing I felt good about was getting on top of that organization."

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, asked Kurrus about the statewide implications of the Little Rock district's situation.

Kurrus said that 60 percent of the state's charter school students reside in Pulaski County and, of the students who left the Little Rock district for the eSTEM and LISA charter schools, 81 percent were proficient or better in reading and 77 percent were proficient or advanced in math.

"What is the state's obligation to fund an alternative education system for students who are succeeding?" he asked, then referred to constitutional language that calls for an "efficient" public education system. "If you begin to segregate students in any circumstance ... we need to look very carefully at that no matter who does that and seriously consider whether that is in the community's best interest. That is the policy issue."

Austin Bailey, the parent of two elementary pupils, was among the dozen people who took up to three minutes each to express their views about the leadership changes. Bailey called Kurrus "a genuine advocate for our students" and said the district doesn't need "a savior from the north." She asked the lawmakers for help in keeping Kurrus on the job.

"He claims us, and we claim him," she said.

Jeff Grimmett is a teacher at Little Rock's Henderson Middle School, which is one of the schools labeled by the state as academically distressed because fewer than half of students scored at proficient levels on state exams over three years. He said those schools are improving despite a lack of help from the state, and he called on the governor and Key to release the district from state control.

Grimmett also asked that charter school expansions and the re-segregation of the city's schools be stopped, that the governor replace Key -- a chemical engineer -- with an experienced educator, and that the upcoming formation of a community advisory board for the Little Rock district be transparent to the public to re-establish a sense of trust.

Fendley, who represented the Little Rock district in federal court in an unsuccessful legal battle over charter schools, said greater school stability could be achieved in Little Rock if charter schools had to offer bus transportation to students, which they're not required to do now, and if restrictions were placed on charter schools prohibiting their angry or misbehaving students from leaving their schools in mid-year to return to traditional schools.

Tracey Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, told legislators that what happens in the Little Rock district, where there are no community-driven decisions, is a bellwether for the rest of the state. "We are concerned about the chilling effect on those who speak to power," she said.

Toney Orr, a parent of students in the district and a community activist, compared the district, where he said his rights have been taken away, to "a sharecropper plantation where we are working the fields for the man in the house and the man in the house is calling all the shots."

Metro on 05/03/2016

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  • BrightBulb
    May 3, 2016 at 8:02 a.m.

    So the hillbilly incompetent lackey, Johnny Key, chickened out. Key is a useless unqualified hack of the Asa/Walton cabal who stands today as a coward afraid to respond to citizens of Little Rock.

  • RamblinRazorWreck
    May 3, 2016 at 8:33 a.m.

    Again, Bentonville High School was rated by US News & World Report as the #2 school in Arkansas for college preparedness of students. (#1 was Haas Charter School in Fayetteville.) So, why is that never mentioned in any of these articles? The data was printed in THIS paper the same week that the Poore hire was announced!

    And then we have so many that denounce Key as unqualified, yet will back Kurrus without even showing any interest in how much more qualified Poore is than Kurrus. Don't get me wrong, I like Kurrus too. But so many are making this all about politics, when I truly believe Key was looking at Poore as a long-term leader. Kurrus did a great job of getting the ball out of the rough, and then Key found someone with impeccable qualifications who is willing to take the ball and move it towards the goal. BTW, Key's job is obviously a political appointment, while the Superintendent's job should be mostly Academic (as well as mildly political - well I guess in LR it is extremely political - huh? The people have made it so, at the same time they are whining about it being political!)

  • syzito
    May 3, 2016 at 8:59 a.m.

    Where is the LR School District headed ? Where it's been for the past 40 years,turning out brain washed politically correct kids that aren't prepared for advanced studies or for reality beyond a school door. They know nothing of history,except the washed version that lacks any form of truth or facts. The dumbing down of the population continues by way of the public federally run school systems.

  • Jackabbott
    May 3, 2016 at 9:31 a.m.

    The Little Rock public schools are the worst in the state and that means probably the worst in the USA and last among 3rd world countries too. They have been driven into the ground by the federal judges and social activists who gained fame and monetary rewards from this debacle. No one person is going to reform or rebuild the schools in a year or two, the damage is just too deep and severe. Sometimes it is better to let the rot completely decay before starting over again. Throwing more money in addition to the millions that the federal judges sucked out of the state is not the answer, because it winds up in the hands of activists who fuel more discord. Let it simmer in its owns stench until a natural ground up re-birth can take place. In the meantime for the few people who do care about the education can send their children to some really great private schools in Little Rock.

  • RP57
    May 3, 2016 at 10:55 a.m.

    The Bentonville School District is in no way comparable to LRSD.

  • PopMom
    May 3, 2016 at 11:17 a.m.

    Several of you have made very cogent remarks. Bentonville High is 12% hispanic and 3% black. While it may be ranked #2 in Arkansas, it is only ranked #837 in the nation. It is very easy to get decent board scores when you have a bunch of rich kids from stable homes whose parents are tutoring the kids or are paying for tutors on the side. If Bentonville High were located in Maryland, it would only rank #30 in the state and it would be behind a few schools with very large populations of blacks and hispanics. Take Eleanor Roosevelt for example which is 59% black and 14% hispanic and yet at #763 ranks above Bentonville. While it remains to be seen whether Poore has the experience in Colorado to help in the LRSD, the numbers from Bentonville are very uninspiring. Citizen Engineer's statement that Poore is "more qualified" that Kurrus is questionable. Kurrus is pretty dang smart (though I will agree that not everybody who went to Harvard has common sense), but Kurrus seems smart and was knowledgeable about the problems in the LRSD. The one person I do know is clueless is Johnny Key, whose main attributes from Asa's perspective seems to be that he is a white male from northwest Arkansas. I am disappointed in Asa. I thought that he was smarter than this.

  • RamblinRazorWreck
    May 3, 2016 at 11:32 a.m.

    Johnny Key is NOT from NW Arkansas. He grew up in a poor, mostly African-American town in south Arkansas. And if you were selecting a candidate for the job of LRSD Super and you had the Poore & Kurrus resume's on your desk, which would you put on the top of the list?
    I'm telling you, most folks are making this way too political. Even Brummett seems to be trying to say that!

  • Delta123
    May 3, 2016 at 12:30 p.m.

    Pop that wasn't a racist remark you made regarding Mr. Key was it? The man was born and raised in Arkadelphia and now resides in Mountain Home. Not exactly "northwest Arkansas" as you stated. Of course if you are trying to do a liberal smear job on a man you play the rich white man, NW Arkansas, Walmart Card. Right?

  • RamblinRazorWreck
    May 3, 2016 at 1:51 p.m.

    Actually Delta123, Key is from Gurdon. But, most GO-Devils would not be completely offended by someone saying they are from Arkadoo! :-)

  • PopMom
    May 3, 2016 at 1:55 p.m.


    He is originally from Gurdon, but he still is a white man with iffy credentials for any top education post. (I am on a feminist rant this week. I'm very disappointed in Maryland Democrats for putting together an all male field of candidates for high office, and the only blacks are from almost totally black congressional districts. Our nominee for Senate is Nancy Pelosi's little sidekick Chris Van Hollen; I would have preferred the more independent thinking Donna Edwards.) I would get more involved with Emily's List, but I am not a big fan of abortion. I get a little squeamish whenever anybody talks about the right to abort.