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OneLRSD, a coalition of parents, teachers and community members in the Little Rock School District, said Sunday that it wants to join a committee of state, district and city officials who have met about the school system's future.

About 150 people met at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock on Sunday night for what was billed as a dialogue with Education Secretary Johnny Key; Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore; Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.; Gov. Asa Hutchinson; state Board of Education Chairwoman Diane Zook; and Reginald Ballard, the newly selected liaison from the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to the school district.

Of the six officials invited to the meeting, only Scott replied to the invitation, said community leader Anika Whitfield. The mayor sent his chief of staff, Charles Blake, to the meeting.

Whitfield led the 90-minute question-and-answer session, which got heated at times as people's frustration with the state's handling of the Little Rock School District during the state's takeover nearly five years ago came to a head.

"There were six schools that absolutely needed help and support from the state," Whitfield said. "The state absolutely knew they could not provide the support we needed."

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 then-48 schools had chronically low achievement on state tests.

At Sunday night's community meeting, Blake fielded a number of questions regarding how the city intends to move forward and the mayor's position on returning the district to local control.

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"As an elected official, I was advocating for a return to local control," said Blake, a former state legislator. "Now, in my capacity in the mayor's office, nothing has changed. We are still advocating for a strong, united school district. ...We are for a locally elected school board."

On Oct. 7, the mayor had called for a memorandum of understanding between the city and the Arkansas Department of Education. Under his plan, struggling site would become known as "community schools" that would offer "wraparound" services to address poverty in those areas.

On Oct. 10, the Education Board agreed to return the governance of the district to a nine-member school board that would be elected in November 2020. According to the motion by the Education Board's newest member, Chad Pekron of Bryant, there would be "a detailed memorandum of understanding that sets forth the state's rights and obligations."

The next day, Key announced on the second day of the state Education Board meeting that he had asked Ballard -- who had been working as the head of the state's charter school unit -- to temporarily work as a state education agency representative in efforts to build support for academically struggling Little Rock schools.

"Reggie will be just a critical part of the team that is ... working with the district, working with the mayor's office," Key had said, 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 Oct. 11. "We will dig into that more as we develop the [memo of understanding]."

A week later, on Oct. 18, Ballard met with the mayor and several other representatives of the city. Also in attendance were representatives from the state Education Department and school district. The group said it plans to hold more meetings.

At Sunday night's community meeting, many attendees expressed impatience with the state Education Board's mandated timetable that puts a school board election for the Little Rock district in November 2020, about a year away.

Central High School teacher Leron McAdoo cautioned that, if school elections are held in November 2020, there might be problems that could result from the delay.

"A lot of things can happen between now and November," McAdoo said. "Even if we do get local control in November [2020], what will we have local control of?"

After the Sunday night meeting, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said the immediate goal of OneLRSD is to achieve meaningful representation as an agreement for the return of the Little Rock School District to local control is hammered out.

"It doesn't make much sense for the three parties to continue moving ahead and only talking to us after the fact," Elliott said. "We have tough details to work out. Let's work them out at the onset and not after the fact."

Blake concurred, saying the mayor is supportive of getting the group a seat at the table.

"We've already had conversations about how do we make sure that teachers and parents are at the table making these tough decisions with the city and the state," Blake said. "This doesn't work unless there's community buy-in, and there's only community buy-in if there's community ownership, and community ownership only happens if they get what they want and what they need."

State Desk on 10/28/2019

Print Headline: Group seeks say in future of Little Rock schools


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