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

Voters in the Little Rock School District on Tuesday elected seven school board members and sent four candidates to Dec. 1 run-offs.

The election — the first in the district since September 2014 — heralds the impending return of local governance to a district that has been under state control without a local school board since January 2015.

Michael Mason of Zone 1, Sandrekkia Morning of Zone 2 and Leigh Ann Wilson of Zone 4 were elected to seats on the new Little Rock School Board in uncontested races.

Ali Noland, Norma J. Johnson, Greg Adams and Jeff Wood won their contested races for the School Board in the district that was taken over by the state in January 2015 because six of the district’s then-48 schools were in academic distress.

Johnson and Adams are former members of the Little Rock board. Wood is the current chairman of the district's Community Advisory Board that has acted as a liaison between the district and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key who acts in place of the school board.

Tommy Branch Jr., and Evelyn Hemphill Callaway from Zone 3 and FranSha’ Anderson and Vicki Hatter in Zone 6 are headed to the run-off elections as no one in the two races received better than 50% of the votes.

The new nine-member board faces the challenges of academic achievement, declining student enrollment and right-sizing the number of school campuses — all during a global covid-19 pandemic that has resulted in unprecedented numbers of students receiving online instruction and also fueling tensions over safety between district leadership and teachers.

Complete but unofficial returns showed:

Zone 3

Tommy Branch Jr. 2,016

Evelyn Hemphill Callaway 1,823

Monica Wiley 1,560

Michael Sanders 1,388

Zone 5

Ali Noland 5,163

Stuart Mackey 4,087

Zone 6

FranSha’ Anderson 2,331

Vicki Hatter 1,755

Lou Jackson 1,076

Chris Kingsby 868

Zone 7

Norma J. Johnson 3,889

Ryan D. Davis 3,434

Zone 8

Greg Adams 5,967

Ronald R. Coleman Jr. 2,857

Zone 9

Jeff Wood 5,925

Kieng B. Vang-Dings 4,189

Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said late Tuesday that he had become acquainted with the candidates in recent weeks and was impressed with their caliber.

Noland, a mother of two district students, an attorney and an activist for local control of the district, said late Tuesday that participation in the election shows that “Little Rock cares a great deal about the future of our public schools.

"Now it is time to focus on working together and giving our community a meaningful voice in decisions that will affect our kids,” she said.

Adams, father of two adults who graduated from the district and program coordinator for the Center for Good Mourning and Staff Bereavement Support at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said he was grateful for voter support in the race for Zone 8 in one of the city’s north-central sections.

“I look forward to being a part of the new Little Rock School Board,” he said, while also commending his opponent Coleman’s campaign efforts.

The new School Board is unlikely to meet before January because of the need for the run-off elections, vote certifications and the administration of oaths, according to Arkansas Department of Education leaders. That first organizational meeting will be to elect officers and draw for staggered term lengths. The board terms in the past have been for three years but that is subject to change. School board positions are unpaid.

The Arkansas Board of Education voted last December to reinstate a school board but with restrictions that will remain in place until the district exits Level 5/Intensive support category of the state’s school accountability system.

Those conditions prohibit the new board from changing superintendents, recognizing an employee union for contract negotiations and instigating lawsuits unless there is approval from of the Arkansas Education Board.

“In the short term, I expect the new board will work closely with [Superintendent Mike] Poore to promote stability and support meeting the Level 5 exit criteria,” Key said this week about the shift in district governance.

“In the long term, there are many successes the board can build upon,” Key also said. ” The district now has a reading curriculum based on scientific evidence of how children learn to read. This is a game-changer for students and for the district overall, and board support is critical for its ongoing success. The professional learning communities process is another area that is having a positive impact in LRSD and will need continued support from the board.”

Candidates that received the endorsements from the Little Rock Education Association union of employees were: Adams, Callaway, Davis, Hatter, Noland and Vang-Dings.

Arkansas Learns, an organization that advocates for parental school choice, and its executive director Gary Newton contributed to the campaigns of Branch, Anderson, Johnson and Wood.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story’s headline misstated the number of races going into run-offs. Two races – meaning four candidates total – are headed to run-offs.

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