The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday postponed decisions until next week on proposals to waive employment-protection laws in the Little Rock and Pine Bluff school districts, both of which operate under state control.
The Education Board will hold a special meeting on the proposed waivers at 10 a.m. Dec. 20 at the Arch Ford Education Building at 4 Capitol Mall.
Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne said she will make a series of sweeping motions for changes in the operation of the Little Rock district and some of its schools and programs at the meeting.
The board's reasons varied for tabling the possible waivers of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public Employee Fair Hearing Act in the two districts.
In the case of Little Rock, Superintendent Mike Poore had to leave the Education Board meeting late Thursday afternoon for another commitment before the Education Board could hear from audience members, complete its discussion and vote.
In the case of Pine Bluff, the proposed waiver was not on the agenda for the meeting. When it was proposed by Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Mike Hernandez, who is superintendent of the state office for coordinated support and service, Education Board members balked.
The board has the authority to waive the school employee protection laws and take myriad other steps in districts that are classified by the state as being Level 5, in need of intensive support, which is the case for the Little Rock and Pine Bluff systems.
Key had said in October that he would seek a state board-approved waiver of the employment-protection laws in Little Rock schools that had recently earned state letter grades of Ds and Fs. Such a waiver would ease and quicken the ability of leaders to rid the district of ineffective or incompetent employees.
Education Board members said Thursday that dramatic action is needed in the financially and academically struggling Pine Bluff district but they concluded that in the interest of doing business in a way that is transparent to the public -- particularly to Pine Bluff district stakeholders -- the matter should be voted on after public notice is given.
Key said waiving employment-protection laws in Pine Bluff was a way to "right-size" the district staff while improving instruction. The waiver of the laws -- which establish procedures of evaluating and trying to help employees improve before they are fired for incompetence -- would be just for the 2019-20 school year, he said.
The district is overstaffed because of declines in student enrollment. Enacting a reduction-in-force would result in laying off the most recently hired employees.
The district will do that, Hernandez said about layoffs, but it also would use a waiver of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act if a principal or teacher is not doing what needs to be done in following new policies and procedures in Pine Bluff.
"We would have the ability to make quick decisions and not have to wait many months or a year or more to get the person out of that classroom and replace them with an effective person," Hernandez said. "You are here but if you are going to be here, make sure you are swimming in the right direction," he said about district staff members.
Board Chairman Jay Barth of Little Rock characterized the Pine Bluff proposal -- which came up as part of a quarterly report on the district -- as "a real effort to hide the football." He called it "deeply problematic" and that acting on it would set a bad precedent. He said he was personally offended that as board chairman he was not consulted about the meeting agenda before it was posted on the department's website last week.
Board member Ouida Newton of Poyen said she was in favor of the waiver but saw the need to delay a vote.
"The community of Pine Bluff is hungry for change and ... hungry for their students to have the opportunities that they deserve. I want that for them, too," Newton said. "Things that are best for students are not always the things that make adults happy. But I don't want to deceive anyone at all," she added in calling for a later vote.
Jeremy Owoh, the recently state-appointed superintendent to the academically and financially struggling district, said he was also unaware before Thursday's meeting that such a waiver was in the works.
He was there to ask the Education Board for continuation of a waiver of state law that requires teachers to hold state licenses.
Zook said at the end of Thursday's marathon board meeting that she will make a series of motions at the special meeting next week regarding the operation of the Little Rock district
Those motions will call for the "complete restructuring" of the district's central office by eliminating some positions and adding others, she said. And she will seek to apply the waiver of employment protection laws to all employees at all locations in the Little Rock district, including administrators and principals.
Reconstituting Hall High School, which is one of the district's F-rated schools, will be among her proposals, as will taking steps to add ninth through 12th grades in northwest Little Rock, as a way of ensuring that all parts of the city will get quality education programs.
She also will ask the Education Department to do a thorough analysis of the district's entire special education department and whether the district is appropriately screening and otherwise taking care of children with dyslexia. And she will ask the department to examine the allocation of resources to the different schools and teachers in response to complaints that some schools and teachers receive more aid than others.
She said she will call for the adoption by the district of a literacy curriculum that is based on the science of reading and that the Education Department ensure that it aligns with state standards.
The Education Board heard from about a half-dozen audience members Thursday who spoke against granting waivers of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, saying in part that it would further erode public trust in the system as well as deter teachers who go above and beyond for their students, including students at Hall High.
"I'm asking you not to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act," Little Rock parent Ali Noland told the board, "because it is going to make it hard to attract good teachers. Teachers are not paid enough. Their job is challenging. We don't need to take away some small measure of job security and due process and make it harder for us to compete with surrounding districts to attract good teachers."
Metro on 12/14/2018
Print Headline: Vote on dismissal waivers is put off; teachers’ shield at issue in Little Rock, Pine Bluff