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

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key on Tuesday didn't rule out modifications to a previously approved framework for governing the Little Rock School District.

That could mean there will be consideration of Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.'s proposal Monday to return the state-controlled Little Rock district in its entirety to the governance of an appointed transition board -- made up of community and state Board of Education appointees -- that would oversee the district until a school board is elected in November 2020.

The Scott plan also calls for F-graded schools in the district to become "community schools" with extra services to be operated by the district under a memorandum of understanding with the city and the Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"I appreciate Mayor Scott's proposal and thoughtful approach to a very difficult issue," Key said in a statement released by his agency Tuesday.

"This is the kind of input the State Board members hoped to receive when they asked for community feedback on the next steps for LRSD," Key continued. "I am open to having conversations with the State Board about the proposal to find areas of agreement while balancing the responsibility of the state."

The Arkansas Board of Education voted in January 2015 to take over the Little Rock district -- dismissing its school board and placing its superintendent under the state's supervision -- because six of then 48 schools were classified as academically distressed due to chronically low test scores. The Little Rock district is approaching a five-year deadline to correct the academic problems or face annexation, consolidation or reconstitution.

The Arkansas Education Board will hold its regular monthly meeting Thursday and Friday in the Arch Ford Education Building at 4 Capitol Mall. The 1 p.m. Thursday agenda includes the application of the framework that the Education Board approved last month -- including the possible grouping of the district's 40 schools into categories based on newly released A-to-F letter grades.

Two Education Board members -- Chairman Diane Zook of Melbourne and Little Rock, and Brett Williamson of El Dorado -- have said in recent days that the transition board seems unnecessary in light of Little Rock's existing seven-member Community Advisory Board that meets almost weekly to advise Key on personnel, policy and budget matters in the district.

Earlier Tuesday, Hutchinson noted that preliminary 2019 letter grades have been released for the Little Rock schools in the time since the Education Board approved the framework plan that calls for F-graded, Category 3 schools, to operate under "different leadership" than the other schools in the district but "in partnership with the district."

"So I know that they'll be taking a look at that again this week," Hutchinson said, "and with more information on the table, we'll see if there are any changes that are made in that framework and in response to the mayor's comments [Monday] as well," Hutchinson said.

Eight of the Little Rock district's 40 schools have F's and 15 more have D's, according to a preliminary release of data last week. The F schools are J.A. Fair, Hall and McClellan high schools; Henderson Middle School; and Baseline, Meadowcliff, Watson and Washington elementaries. Final grades for all Arkansas schools are scheduled to be released today by the education agency.

Also on Tuesday, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, announced that the Legislative Black Caucus will hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. today regarding the release of the grades for schools, which are based largely on results from the ACT Aspire tests given to students in grades three through 10 each spring in math, English/language arts and science.

The letter-grade calculations take into account achievement on the most recent tests, gains made over the test results in the previous year and other factors such as student attendance, high school graduation and college entrance exam results.

"With the release of the school grades, the caucus is very concerned about the meaning of those grades and how they are used to label schools," Elliott said in announcing the news conference.

"For the Little Rock School District, the Arkansas state Board of Education used school grades to take control of the district. After five years of control, it is time for the board to return the district to the people of LRSD. The caucus will outline the damaging effects of labeling and its case for relinquishing state control," she said.

Elliott also noted that the state had taken control of other districts -- Pine Bluff, Dollarway, Earle and Lee County -- all of which have predominantly black enrollments.

"We are greatly concerned about this pattern, what it will take to reverse these results and what must be done to fulfill the mandates" of the Arkansas Supreme Court decisions in the Lake View School funding case.

On Thursday, the Education Board will consider a proposal that was tabled last month to direct Key to end collective bargaining of employee contracts in the Little Rock district. The Little Rock Education Association has been the exclusive employee contract bargaining agent in the district for decades.

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the employee association, has said that association members have discussed in private meetings possible plans for a strike or other job action in the event the state Education Board chooses to retain state control of Category 3 schools and end collective bargaining with the association.

"[I]n the public arena and education, any time that a union threatens a strike and says we are going to plan for a strike, that's not putting the interest of the children first, and that's very troubling to me," Hutchinson said Tuesday.

"That might be one of the reasons you don't have a negotiated union contract in any other school district in the state of Arkansas right now, so I hope that they really refrain from that type of discussion and threat. I don't think that is in the best interest of the children," he said.

Various individuals and organizations issued differing position statements Tuesday about the Little Rock district issues.

Michele Linch, executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association that is a non-union professional organization, said in response to the threat of a strike that her organization does not support strikes that are a disservice to students and erode the goodwill of the public that is increasingly receptive to teacher concerns.

"To be clear, striking teachers are not uncaring people -- they're exhausted and exasperated," Linch also wrote. "There is evidence teachers have been misinformed of significant facts and pressured, being told that a contentious strike is absolutely necessary. It is not.

"Adversarial actions oppress support and collaboration. We must empower individual teachers and restore their voice at the policy table. Teachers, students, parents, administrators, policymakers and communities must work together, not against one another," she said.

Former Pulaski County Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey, who as an attorney in 2015 represented some of the displaced Little Rock School Board members in an unsuccessful legal challenge to the state takeover, on Tuesday called for the displaced members to be returned to a re-established Little Rock board.

"Reinstate those who were duly elected," he said of the seven members -- four of whom were black and three were white.

Dianne Curry, one of the displaced Little Rock board members and now the newly selected president of the Little Rock chapter of the NAACP, called a news conference Tuesday to say that the organization is investigating employee dismissal practices in the Little Rock district for racial bias.

The Arkansas Public Policy Panel, headed by Bill Kopsky to help community groups to organize, set goals and develop action plans, has set up an online petition drive to show opposition to the state plan to retain control over some schools and end recognition of the Little Rock Education Association.

"We should not give the Governor and the State Department of Education more time to continue doing what does not work. We can not let them blame and attack our teachers and community for bad outcomes they created by failing to invest in our students," the petition states.

The Little Rock Education Association, Grassroots Arkansas, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and other organizations that are opposed to the state retaining control over a portion of the district's schools and eliminating union recognition are hosting a candlelight vigil at 7:30 p.m. today at Central High at 1400 Park St.

A Section on 10/09/2019


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