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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo. ( Gavin Lesnick)

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education's release Wednesday of 2019 numerical scores and letter grades for more than 1,000 public schools will put the state Board of Education in position Thursday to make decisions about the Little Rock School District.

Weeks of fierce debate and the exchange of hundreds of emails about the future of the state-controlled Little Rock district have preceded this week's Education Board meeting, which will start at 10 a.m. and go into the afternoon.

It is in the afternoon session that the board is scheduled to address both the "reconstituting" of the capital city's school system -- including the possible grouping of schools into three categories -- and a proposal made last month to end any further collective bargaining of Little Rock district employee contracts with the Little Rock Education Association.

The board's agenda also includes recommendations on how personnel-policy committees for both teachers and support staff would be organized should the employee union no longer be recognized as the contract bargaining agent for the teachers and support staff.

[WEEK IN LR: Catch up with the biggest stories from Arkansas' capital city in this free newsletter » arkansasonline.com/emails/this-week-lr]

Diane Zook of Little Rock and Melbourne, chairman of the state Education Board, said Friday that the afternoon session was deliberately scheduled to enable people who are interested in the Little Rock matters to attend.

In 2015, six of the district's then-48 schools were labeled as academically distressed based on chronically low scores on state exams. The state Education Board dismissed the district's seven-member School Board and placed the superintendent under the direction of the education commissioner.

Current state law calls for a district under state authority for five years to meet state-set exit criteria for regaining a locally elected school board or face the permanent "consolidation" or "annexation" to another district -- which has been ruled out in the case of the large Little Rock district -- or be "reconstituted," which is not defined in state law.

EARLY RESULTS

Preliminary information for the Little Rock district shows that eight campuses -- Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan high schools; Henderson Middle School; and Baseline, Meadowcliff, Washington and Watson elementaries -- will have F grades from the state for the recently completed 2018-19 school year.

Six schools have A's, three have B's, eight have C's and 15 have D's.

The A-to-F letter grades are based on a school's Every Student Succeeds Act score, which is made up of Aspire test results, improvement in test scores compared with past years, and factors such as high school graduation rates and student attendance.

After holding public forums to solicit ideas on how to reconstitute the district, the state Education Board on Sept. 20 approved a framework plan to be used in the event that there are 2019 F-graded schools.

That framework plan calls for returning the Little Rock district to a nine-member, locally elected school board in November 2020, which may have limited authority as defined by the state Education Board or may operate under the direction of the education commissioner.

The locally elected board will oversee "Category 1" schools that have grades of D or better. Category 2 schools will be those affected by previously announced and approved plans for consolidating, closing and/or repurposing of campuses. The state Education Board will determine which schools are included in Category 2. Schools that receive F grades from the state -- or "Category 3" schools -- will be placed "under different leadership ... but in partnership with the district."

Placing F-graded schools under "different leadership" has generated opposition from teachers, parents and others who contend that the state will be racially and economically segregating the district, and/or giving a part of the district to a charter management organization.

Education Board member Sarah Moore of Stuttgart, who made the motion for the framework plan last month, said she doesn't see different leadership meaning a separation of the schools from the overall district, nor does she envision the schools becoming charter schools that are operated by nonprofit organizations.

Zook, the board chairman, said she personally envisions the Category 3 school leader being someone -- possibly from the Arkansas Department of Education -- who can focus not on transportation or food service but solely on literacy achievement in the school. That would allow school district curriculum and literacy directors to concentrate on literacy instruction districtwide, she said.

Zook made the comments Friday after a visit to the F-graded Hall High, which she described as "exciting" because of the initiatives underway.

"Too often if you are an F school, people don't pay attention to the fact that you have met your growth score two years in a row or that you didn't have a band but now you have one and it's almost doubled in size over two years. It's just exciting," she said.

"The after-school tutoring and enrichment programs for students are really making a difference," she said.

Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore also noted what he sees as achievement growth of students this year as compared with the previous year at a majority of the 40 schools, saying that teachers, administrators and state agency leaders are "on the right track." Measures of that achievement growth are expected to be released by the state on Wednesday, officials have said.

Zook noted that four of the eight schools in the Little Rock district that had F's for the 2017-18 school year improved a letter grade -- with state agency assistance. But four of the previous year's D schools -- that didn't get as much state help -- became F schools.

"Those are the kinds of things we look at to see when districts need our extra help," she said.

Zook said that she has been encouraged by people who pull her aside at the bank or grocery store or in a parking lot to voice support of the framework plan.

"We're getting lots and lots of positive feedback for the framework," she said.

HUNDREDS OF EMAILS

However, emails sent to the state agency show strong opposition to the framework plan and to ending recognition of the union as the contract bargaining agent.

A Freedom of Information Act request for email correspondence between the public and members of the Board of Education dating between Sept. 20 and Sept. 30 produced more than 400 messages.

A review of many of those messages from the public to board members showed that virtually all of the the message writers were opposed to putting F-graded schools under "different leadership in partnership with the Little Rock district," which many said would be a racially and/or economically segregative move.

"I am appalled by the continuous efforts to undermine teachers and their workplace stability," Melanie Chapin-Critz of Little Rock wrote in what was a fairly typical message.

"Please make a U-turn," Chapin-Critz wrote. "My community opposes your efforts to separate rich from poor. My community opposes closing neighborhood schools and shuffling children off to new charter schools. We regard teachers as our partners, our heroes, not our enemies. My family stands firm in its support of stability for children, teachers' rights and an undivided district."

Sheila Witherington of Little Rock described herself as "one mad grandma" in her message in which she said state board members were going to be called "racists elites in history" and that "the national press is one heartbeat away."

"Give our school district back immediately," Witherington wrote. "I don't play nice when it concerns my grandchildren. Stop. Now. Enough."

The emails came not just from Little Rock district residents but from writers across the state and even the nation, including Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C.

"Jesus would not like this proposal," wrote Shannon Castle, who said she is a product of the Little Rock School District but now lives in Chicago.

Other email message writers were from places including Conway, Newport, Benton, Stuttgart, Morrilton, Camden, Greenbrier, North Little Rock, Dover and Oppelo in Arkansas.

"How shameful that the public board meant to lead and safeguard public education in our state seems hell-bent on dismantling and privatizing it," Allison Lawson of Camden wrote. "Provide the support and resources LRSD needs by restoring local control and advocating for greater resources and support for schools with greater needs."

There were letters of support for the Little Rock district from private-school parents and educators, as well.

UNION OR PERSONNEL-POLICY COMMITTEES?

Thursday's meeting -- to be preceded Wednesday by a 7:30 p.m. candlelight vigil at Little Rock's Central High -- includes a proposal tabled last month to end union recognition. That proposal spurred a private meeting of the union members last week to consider responses, including striking and sickouts, association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said later.

The district has engaged in contract bargaining with the association since the 1960s. Gordon has said that more than 70% of the teachers are union members. The membership is audited every spring and reported to the school district.

The employees' current contract expires Oct. 31.

The state Education Board, which last month directed that steps be taken to form personnel-policy committees to represent employees, will consider not only ending union recognition but also waiving state laws on the role of teachers and support staff in electing their representatives to those personnel-policy committees.

The law calls for teachers and support staff members to conduct their own elections -- without district administrator interference -- in the first quarter of the school year.

Johnny Key, the state education secretary who acts as the school board for the state-controlled Little Rock district, has proposed for Thursday's board meeting plans for personnel-policy committee elections to be conducted by the American Arbitration Association.

The teacher committee would have eight teacher members and three administrator members.

Arkansas Code Annotated 6-15-2916 gives the state Education Board authority over a public school district classified as in need of Level 5-intensive support, such as Little Rock.

Code 6-17-203 says that each school district shall have a committee on personnel policies, which will be made up of no fewer than five classroom teachers and no more than three administrators -- one of which may be the superintendent. The statute also says that the classroom teacher members must be elected by a majority of the teachers who vote by secret ballot.

"The election shall be solely and exclusively conducted by the classroom teachers, including the distribution of ballots to all teachers," the law states.

Each school district's committee on personnel policies shall organize itself in the first quarter of each school year and elect a chairperson and a secretary, the law says. Among the statute's other provisions are requirements that the minutes of the committee meetings be promptly reported and distributed to the members of the school board and posted in the buildings of a school district, including the administrative offices.

Either the committee, the school board or the superintendent may propose new policies or changes to existing policies, the law says.

New policies or changes to the existing policies that are proposed by a school board may not be voted on by the board until the final form of the policy has been sent to the policy committee for its consideration at least 10 working days before the school board vote, the law says.

The chairman of the committee must have an opportunity to present to the school board the committee's comments or position on proposals -- whether proposed by the committee or school board -- before they are voted on by the school board as final, the law says.

There are similar statutes for the operation of a personnel policies committee for classified employees.

Arkansas Code annotated 6-17-2303 calls for each district to have a classified employees committee that consists of at least one nonmanagement employee from each of the maintenance, transportation, food service, secretaries and clerks, and aides and paraprofessional groups. All other employee groups are grouped together and at least one person elected from that at-large group. There can be no more than three administrators on the committee, the statute says.

Metro on 10/06/2019

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