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2 advisory panels set; Little Rock schools hot topic

by Cynthia Howell | May 13, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.
Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus gives Arkansas Board of Education members a progress report Thursday on the state-run school system.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key on Thursday announced appointments to one new education committee for south Pulaski County and described the process for forming a second advisory group for the state-controlled Little Rock School District.

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Greg Adams, co-chairman of the Little Rock School District Civic Advisory Committee, tells the Board of Education on Thursday that the district has no advocate, and “we feel like we are not going to be allowed to have an advocate going forward.”
Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Greg Adams wears a sticker Thursday that reads “Keep the Public in Public Schools,” as he addresses the state Board of Education in Little Rock.

He also suggested that the state Board of Education review the Little Rock district's state-controlled status in the fall, after the board receives the results from the state-required ACT Aspire exams. Those tests were just administered in math, literacy and science to students in grades three through 10 in schools in Little Rock and across the state.

Key presented the plans at the state Education Board's monthly meeting, three hours of which was devoted to discussion and comments from a large audience of community members about the Little Rock district, its ongoing state-control status and the recently made decision by Key to replace Little Rock Superintendent Baker Kurrus.

Lawmakers, parents, civic leaders and a student took turns at the lectern to call for Key's resignation in light of the superintendent change, to plead for the return of the Little Rock district to local control, and to demand more transparency in the decision-making that is done for the district.

"The Little Rock School District at the moment has no advocate," said Greg Adams, a former school board member and now co-chairman of the Civic Advisory Committee that last month called for Key's replacement and a school board be elected to operate the district.

Adams -- one of more than a dozen speakers on the topic Thursday -- cited the state board's decision earlier this year to allow the expansion of independently run charter schools despite opposition from Little Rock district leaders. He also noted Key's decision to replace Kurrus, who led that charter school opposition.

"Not only do we feel like we don't have an advocate," Adams told the Education Board, "we feel like we are not going to be allowed to have an advocate going forward, and that is the concern that led to our resolution."

The state Board of Education voted 5-4 in January 2015 to dismiss the Little Rock school board and place the superintendent under the control of the education commissioner because six of the district's 48 schools were labeled by the state as academically distressed. That meant that fewer than half of their students scored at proficient or better levels on state math and literacy exams over three years. The number has since dropped to five schools.

Key appointed Kurrus, a lawyer and former 12-year school board member, to be the superintendent of the district last May.

In April, Key -- with virtually no notice or collaboration with the community members -- told Kurrus that his contract would not be renewed when it expires June 30 and that Michael Poore, superintendent of the Bentonville School District, will become the Little Rock chief executive on July 1.

Poore will speak to the Education Board at 9 a.m. today about his plans for transitioning into the Little Rock district.

The decision to replace Kurrus came shortly after the debate over expansion of the LISA Academy and eStem charter schools. Key has said that a desire to have an academician in charge of the district was the reason for the leadership change, not Kurrus' stance on charter schools.

After the Education Board's March 31 votes allowing for the charter-school expansions, Education Board member Jay Barth in April proposed the employment of a "researcher facilitator" or consultant, with help in selecting that consultant from a community stakeholder group.

The plan called for the researcher to make recommendations that would inform the Education Board in its future decisions about charter schools as well as promote cooperation and collaboration among charters and traditional schools in Pulaski County south of the Arkansas River. The work could become a model for use statewide.

Key said Thursday that he and Education Board Chairman Toyce Newton of Crossett recently selected members from a pool of applicants for the stakeholder group and he announced their names: Tommy Branch, Tamika Edwards, Ann Brown Marshall, Jim McKenzie, Antwan Phillips, Leticia Reta and Dianna Varady.

Branch served on the Little Rock School Board for a short time. Marshall is the former federal desegregation monitor in Pulaski County. McKenzie is the longtime director of the Metroplan planning organization. Phillips is a McClellan High graduate and attorney. Reta is a parent and active in the Hispanic community.

Edwards is director of governmental affairs for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Varady is director of the Autism Resource Center at Partners for Inclusive Communities, University of Arkansas.

Key said the stakeholder group meetings will be announced in advance, open to the public, live-streamed, recorded and then posted on the Education Department's website. The date, time and place for the initial meeting has not yet been decided.

In addition, Key announced and the Education Board accepted a plan to create a Community Advisory Board in the Little Rock district by midsummer. The Community Advisory Board is authorized by state law for districts that are in their second year of a state control and are making progress in correcting academic or financial problems but have not yet resolved all issues.

Key noted that Baseline Elementary School in the Little Rock district has been cleared of the academic distress label and that pre- and post-testing of students before state-required testing showed that Little Rock students in other schools were making gains.

He called the formation of a Community Advisory Board "a significant step in return of local governance."

The new board -- made up of one volunteer from each of the district's seven school board election zones -- would be responsible for seeking community input about the district, building capacity for the district to return to local control, conducting hearings on student discipline and employee grievance or discipline matters, and preparing quarterly reports on the district's efforts to raise student achievement and clear schools of the academic distress label.

The advisory board would replace the district's existing and much larger Civic Advisory Committee that was formed at the time of the state board decision to take over the district. That committee of community and philanthropic representatives, teachers and students has held a series of town-hall meetings and will compile its findings -- including recommendations on facilities, achievement and public engagement -- into a final report to be completed next week.

Legislative nominations for the the Community Advisory Board members will be May 31, Key said. Applications from interested members of the public are due June 17 and the state board will be asked to approve members at its July meeting. Application forms are available on the agency's website.

Key also raised the possibility of additional "next steps" for the Little Rock district. While the Education Department is responsible for identifying the schools that do and do not meet the criteria for academic distress after each testing season, the Education Board is authorized by law to take any action regarding state control. If one or two of the Little Rock schools should be cleared of the distress label after this spring's testing session, he asked, would the state retain control of the district or want to do something else?

"We pose that to generate discussion," said Key, who later in the meeting said that the each school's Arkansas Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, or ACSIP, is the plan for a school to raise student achievement to at least the point where 49.5 percent of its test-takers score at proficient levels on state exams.

Barth and board member Mireya Reith of Fayetteville on Thursday asked that steps be taken to respond to the calls from the public for greater transparency in the decision-making for the district.

Key recommended that the Education Board meet with the pool of applicants for the advisory board before their appointments are finalized.

Barth made a motion, which was approved 7-0, that will make a review of the Little Rock district's student test results an action item on a state Education Board agenda next fall.

Thursday's meeting was the first state board meeting since Key's decision to replace Kurrus. Opposition to that and to the continued state control of the district resulted in an overflow crowd -- many wearing lapel stickers that said "Keep the Public in Public Schools -- and a long list of speakers who were passionate and sometimes angry.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, was among them. She told the Education Board that she believes the Little Rock district and other districts in the state are being forced to operate under a "rigged system" in which a few people with "money and power can afford to meet behind their gilded curtains and send out orders and have them carried out."

She questioned why the district was taken over by the state in January 2015 when just six of its 48 schools were classified by the state as academically distressed. She also said the process for replacing Kurrus with Poore "makes dark money look OK," a reference to anonymous out-of-state funding for in-state political campaigns.

"I have lost all my gentleness," she told the Education Board. "I want to talk to you about an 18-month what I call psychological assault, a strategy of shock and awe to the Little Rock district and to this city. And I am not here to ask for anything. I'm here to demand that the Little Rock School District be returned to community."

The elected school board members were dismissed but the district's then-superintendent was retained after he had spoken against the district and the board, Elliott said. The reasons for the state's takeover seemed to morph into fiscal reasons, causing the public to be confused, she added. Additionally, she said, the expansion of indpendently­ operated charter schools in the district has resulted in a parallel school system.

"When I say parallel school systems, that takes me back to 1957 when I was starting school, when we were under a racist school district ordered by law and that we were trying to change. Here we are, more segregated than we were in the late 1970s and '80s," she said in criticizing state policies that allow for the public-funded charter-school systems.

She objected to what she believes will be the new superintendent's plan to turn three of the district's five high schools into career and technical education centers with little input from district patrons.

Elliott and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, also discounted the value of the proposed Community Advisory Board, saying that a similar board in the neighboring Pulaski County Special district has been disrespected and ignored.

Chesterfield said that all districts under state control should be returned to local governance.

"Your track record is not great," she said. You don't have the will or the capacity to do it and then we find someone with the capacity and you get rid of him," she said.

Julie Johnson Holt, a former agency employee, said she had held out hope last year that the takeover and the hiring of Kurrus would prove to be in the best interest of the district.

"I no longer trust that the district that performed so well for my children is in able and caring hands while in state control," she said. "So I want to know, what are the benchmarks -- benchmarks that don't shift -- that get LRSD out of state control."

Ruth Bell of the League of Women Voters in Pulaski County asked that members for the advisory board be residents with records of positive support for the public school and an interest in returning to local control.

Henri Smothers, a longtime activist in the Parent Teacher Association, said the association opposes measures that weaken local school boards and divert tax dollars away from public schools.

"I stand for those who are speechless," she said. "We want our schools back."

Reta, a parent who is on the new south-of-the-river committee, told the board that the frequent changes in the operation of the district makes it difficult for Hispanic families with language barriers to understand what is happening in the system and how it might affect their children.

Other speakers warned the Education Board against aligning themselves on the wrong side of history in regard to segregation, failing to support democracy and returning the state to international infamy in regard to racism.

Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel -- an organization that has taken a leading role in opposing the state control and removal of Kurrus -- said Thursday that he appreciated the Education Board listening to the public. But he called the Education Board's response insufficient.

He repeated earlier calls for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to replace Key, who he said has confused the roles of commissioner and lobbyist. He said the department's past decade of nonpartisan work to improve education using research-based strategies is being undone.

Kurrus, who reports to the state Education Board monthly, used his time Thursday to review the accomplishments of the school district.

The Little Rock district is the most decorated and celebrated district in the state, he said in listing accomplishments that included nearly $24 million in scholarships offered to the district's 1,400 graduates this year, its two recipients of Gates Millennium Scholarships that pays for bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees, and its 16 National Merit scholarship semifinalists.

He also referred to the charter-school issue, saying that creating competing public school systems within a community makes no sense.

"You wouldn't build two water systems to see which one works best," he said.

A Section on 05/13/2016

Print Headline: 2 advisory panels set; LR schools hot topic

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