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

Reginald Ballard, who has headed the state's charter school unit in recent months, is leaving that post for the time being to serve as a state education agency representative in efforts to build support for academically struggling Little Rock schools.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key announced Ballard's job change within the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday at a regularly scheduled state Board of Education work session.

"Reggie will be just a critical part of the team that is ... working with the district, working with the mayor's office," Key said.

Key said he didn't have the opportunity to make the Ballard announcement at Thursday's state board meeting. The board that day voted and approved a number of motions, one of which was to return the state-controlled Little Rock School District in its entirety to a school board to be elected in November 2020.

That plan -- which also calls for creating a memorandum of understanding on the state's rights and obligations to the district -- modified the Education Board's earlier plan to put the district's eight F-graded schools under "different leadership" from the rest of the district.

"I've asked him to at least for now temporarily change his job duties," Key said about Ballard, adding that Ballard "will be our liaison working with the communities" that are home to what were originally going to be "Category 3" F-graded schools, but will now be a broader set of academically struggling schools.

"The goal being identifying what community partnerships look like to build community schools," Key said. "We will dig into that more as we develop the [memo of understanding]."

Ballard will be in addition to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education staff members who are already working weekly, if not daily, with faculty members in the district's academically struggling schools on instructional strategies.

The state board is making decisions on the the governance and operation of the district in advance of the January expiration of the five years the state can operate the district before having to consolidate, annex or reconstitute it. That state board action is required by law for a district that has not met state-set requirements for exiting state control.

The 23,000-student Little Rock district, currently classified by the state as a district in "Level 5 -- in need of intensive support," has been under state control and without an elected school board since January 2015. That's because six of its 48 schools at the time had chronically low achievement on state tests.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., earlier this week, proposed a plan for returning the district in its entirety to local control and having the district operate its schools that received an F grade from the state under a partnership between the city and the state.

The mayor's proposal, which was not actually adopted by the state board but was referred to by board members, called for providing wraparound services to students at the struggling schools to address poverty in the communities. The mayor has said the city would direct city funds to the effort to improve student achievement.

Key said the new assignment is a good fit for Ballard's job skills. Ballard, 34, earns an annual salary of $57,349. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. The Little Rock Central High graduate has a degree in political science from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a master's degree in teaching from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

He has previously served as a school operations manager for Uplift Education's Luna Preparatory charter school in Dallas and as external affairs coordinator with the office of former Gov. Mike Beebe.

Early in the 2018-19 school year, Ballard helped facilitate public forums in the Little Rock district on closing, consolidating and/or repurposing schools.

Diane Zook of Melbourne and Little Rock, chairman of the state Education Board, called the appointment of Ballard an "excellent" one to accelerate the forming of partnerships with community organizations to improve student achievement and well-being.

Zook said it was never the intent with the initial framework plan -- with its call for different leadership in the lowest-achieving schools -- to segregate students racially or socioeconomically.

"It was a misperception," she said about public complaints about the plan. "Mr. [Chad] Pekron recognized that and that's probably what prompted his motion to change the wording -- maybe people will understand."

Pekron is a state Education Board member.

Scott said Friday that he appreciated Key and the Education Board's action regarding local control of the district.

"This is in the best interest of our most precious assets, our children," Scott said.

However, Scott expressed disappointment that the Education Board did not leave to a locally elected Little Rock School Board a decision on ending collective bargaining with the Little Rock Education Association employee union.

At the same meeting Thursday in which it voted on local control, the Education Board directed Key to put an end to the district's decades-old recognition of the union as the contract-bargaining agent for Little Rock district employees, effective Oct. 31, when the current employee working agreement expires.

Instead, the Education Board directed that the district establish personnel policy committees -- one for teachers and one for support staff.

The members of the two committees will be selected by their colleagues in elections that will be overseen by an independent third party -- also a directive of the Education Board.

The personnel committees, used in other districts throughout Arkansas, provide nonbinding advice to school system administrators and school boards on employee-related matters such as compensation and working conditions.

Education Board member Sarah Moore of Stuttgart initiated the motion to end the collective bargaining, as well as motions to establish the personnel policy committees and reinstate Arkansas Teacher Fair Dismissal Act employment protections that had been waived in the Little Rock district back in December.

Moore did that over the vehement objections of members of the Little Rock Education Association union members and some community members. Union leaders say that more than 70% of district teachers are association members.

Moore said Friday that the newly approved plans are intended "to give a democratic voice to all teachers," and "in many districts we see that work very well."

"The personnel policy committee as it is stated in law gives a committee a lot of responsibilities to oversee and have input on many functions of a school district including salaries and setting the school year calendar," she said.

Personnel committees are by law made up of both teachers and administrators, with the teachers making up the majority of the membership. There must be at least five teachers on a committee but that number can be larger -- including one teacher from every campus in a district. Teachers are by law supposed to conduct the election of their peers to the committee, but the Education Board has waived that requirement in Little Rock and has asked that a third party conduct the election. The American Arbitration Association has been contacted about doing that.

Moore said she would like the arbitration association to make an effort to educate district employees about the personnel committees and the election process before elections.

Stacey McAdoo of Little Rock Central High, Arkansas' 2019 teacher of the year and an ex officio member of the state Education Board, had opposed ending recognition of the employee union of which she is a member.

"I'm moving forward with a broken heart," McAdoo told her board colleagues. She also said she hoped that she can find a way to be "a bridge" between the conflicting board and the Little Rock district employees affected by the board decisions.

The Education Board actions on the union and the personnel committees have raised the possibility of district employees going on strike or taking some other job action to regain union recognition.

Scott said Friday that he hopes teachers will prioritize the needs of students.

"Through the the Fair Dismissal Act for Little Rock School District teachers, it is our hope and expectation that the men and women who work so hard every day for our kids have access to due process," he said.

Earlier this week, Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore posted on the district's website a video and a letter to employees cautioning them against any job action in opposition to state board decisions.

"A work stoppage is actually prohibited by the professional negotiations agreement," he said. "Employees participating in a work stoppage are subject to termination," he wrote and, "As in the past, we must follow policy, and misuse or abuse of leave, including sick leave, will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action, including termination."

Poore said that the time is difficult and emotions and and uncertainty are evident and real.

"I also know that each of you is committed to our students and I greatly respect and appreciate the care, intellect and spirit of collaboration you bring to the job every day," he said.

Reginald Ballard

A Section on 10/12/2019

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