Superintendent Mike Poore and members of the Little Rock School District's Community Advisory Board have expressed at least some preliminary thoughts and opinions about the future governance of what is now a state-controlled district.
The district is approaching a five-year deadline in January for correcting student achievement issues that led to the January 2015 state takeover of the system and the dismissal of a locally elected School Board.
At a time when the Arkansas Board of Education is holding public forums to collect ideas for how the district might be managed within the parameters of current state law, advisory board members were pressed last week by some district parents to make their positions known.
"I said it three years ago. I said it three months ago and I'll say it today: Local control is what I want yesterday," advisory board member Anthony Hampton said Thursday at the end of the board's monthly meeting.
When the state Education Board assumed authority over the Little Rock district in 2015, the elected School Board was dismissed and the superintendent placed under the direction of the Arkansas education commissioner, who is now Johnny Key. Key acts as the policy-setting, budget-approving, employee-hiring school board for the district.
The seven-member advisory board was appointed by the state Board of Education to represent the community in an advisory role to Key and it routinely makes recommendations to him -- many of which are adopted, but not all.
District parents Vicki Hatter and Ali Noland both appealed to the advisory board last week to take a public position on what it believes the district's future governance should be -- in light of the ongoing state Education Board forums.
A public stance by the advisory board in support of a return to local control can help dispel rumors and myths about the district's future, Hatter said.
"We need you all to be our champions and to support us and, if not, be public about it and let people see where you stand," Noland said.
Hampton said in response that he never particularly wanted to be on the advisory board and often wants to quit but he remains a member to represent and fight for students who are growing up in situations like he did, "without much."
He said he will push for local control.
"At the same time, what I am going to push for and fight for is that when local control comes back, that we do what we need to do for local control to stay where it needs to stay," he said. He called for city residents to stay just as engaged in a locally controlled system as they have been on property tax extensions and other matters that generated widespread public involvement in the district's recent history.
Community Advisory Board member Jocelyn Craig said simply that the district should be under local control.
And Michael Mason, another board member, said he grew up in Little Rock in a family of educators. His mother was a home economics teacher in the district. His four children are district graduates.
"I love the Little Rock School District and I am very supportive of public education and the Little Rock district," Mason said.
Jeff Wood, advisory board chairman, suggested waiting to take an advisory board position or even individual positions until there is more clarity from the state on governance options in regard to the district's future.
"That has to occur after we get some more definitive options from the state board of education," Wood said. "At this point, it's my understanding ... from viewing what is going on, ... they are trying to figure out what those options should be and that is the point of the meetings that are taking place right now."
Wood said the law is very clear that the state board has only three options -- consolidation, annexation or reconstitution -- if the state officials decide the district does not meet exit criteria that were set earlier this year for full return of the district to a locally elected school board.
The exit criteria call in part for the district's eight currently F-graded schools to receive higher grades. Those letter grades and the other exit criteria rely heavily on results from the 2019 ACT Aspire test results, on 2019 results compared with 2018 results and on factors such as student attendance and high school graduation rates.
"Their hands are very tied in that respect, Wood said about the law. "In their wisdom they are trying to figure out what it would look like in January of this next year with the options they have under the law.
"They can't do anything outside of the law. They can't wave a magic wand and give everyone what they want. They have to follow the law or else they will be sued. There would be years of litigation and it would be a total mess."
Wood predicted the education board will likely opt for some form of reconstituting the Little Rock district, which has about 40 schools and more than 20,000 students. Reconstitution, however, is not defined in the law.
"You could say that that gives the state board great latitude or you could say that that hamstrings them in what they do," Wood said, calling for wide public participation in upcoming forums to "bring ideas" and "be part of the conversation."
Poore noted that he was hired in 2016 to bring local control back to the district that was placed under state control in 2015 because six of 48 schools had chronically low student test scores.
"I'm in agreement with you," he told the advisory board members. "We are in a place where in my mind the best avenue is get local control back."
But Poore also said that the State Education Board is working with a school district accountability law that was crafted in 2017, not by the state Education Board, but by the Legislature. The law gives districts five years to correct deficiencies that led to takeover or face consolidation or annexation to other districts or reconstitution. Reconstitution is not defined.
"The state board is reaching out," Poore said, "and so our public has a wonderful chance right now to connect in a meaningful way to re-shape what reconstitution is all about."
Advisory board members Maria Chavarria-Garcia, Melanie Fox and LaShannon Spencer were absent Thursday night.
The education board held its first forum last Tuesday and others are set for 6:30 p.m. today at Don Roberts Elementary, 16601 LaMarche Drive; 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Mark Baptist Church, 5722 W. 12th St., and 5:30 p.m. Sept. 3 at the Arch Ford Education Building, 4 Capitol Mall. Efforts are being made to schedule still another session at a southwest Little Rock location.
After the first public forum at Arkansas Baptist College, education board Chairman Diane Zook of Melbourne and Little Rock said she understands that "everyone" wants a locally elected school board to operate in the Capital City's school district.
"We want that," Zook said of the state board. "We get it," she said.
But she also noted that the education board is obligated to comply with the law. The fact that the law doesn't define reconstitution makes it possible for the state education board --with ideas from the general public -- to tailor the definition to the needs of specific districts, be it Little Rock, or Earle or Pine Bluff.
"We have to do things within the law. It's not a whim. It's not subjective," she said.
Zook said she is anxious to structure the format of the upcoming public forums to divide the audiences into groups that can produce ideas and then report out those ideas.
The Education Board has established a 16-question online survey as another way of getting public input on how the Little Rock district might be reconstituted.
The survey is at https://bit.ly/2U0xike.
Metro on 08/26/2019
Print Headline: State board's decision near for Little Rock School District