Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the 19 candidates for election Nov. 3 to nine positions on a newly reestablished Little Rock School Board. The series will run over the course of three days, starting with candidates from Zones 1, 2 and 3; then 4, 5 and 6; and finally 7, 8 and 9.
Voters in Arkansas' 21,000-student capital city school system will elect a Little Rock School Board this fall for the first time since September 2014 -- and after nearly six years of state control during which there was no elected board.
The newly established School Board will have to pick its footing through the challenges of operating a district that remains under a unique set of state constraints, while also facing decisions dealing with academic achievement, declining student enrollment and right-sizing the number of school campuses.
And that all must be done in the midst of a covid-19 pandemic that has not only resulted in unprecedented numbers of students staying at home for online instruction but also has fueled some long-standing tensions between leadership and teachers.
The new board's Zone 1 and Zone 2 seats are uncontested.
Michael Mason, a member of the district's Community Advisory Board that acts in advisory capacity to Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key, will represent southwest Little Rock on the new School Board.
Sandrekkia Morning, who was appointed by the state to the Community Advisory Board in September, is similarly running unopposed from Zone 2, which encompasses southeast Little Rock.
In Zone 3, Tommy Branch Jr., Evelyn Hemphill Callaway, Michael Sanders and Monica Wiley are running to represent south-central Little Rock.
Branch, 47, has experience in the board role. He was appointed to the Little Rock School Board to fill the vacancy created by the death of board member Michael Peterson in 2012. Branch ran for election to the seat in 2013 but was defeated in a three-way race. Later, he was appointed to and chaired the state-related Pulaski County committee tasked with identifying ways that traditional and charter schools could collaborate.
Branch currently has pending against him legal charges from Sept. 20 of careless and prohibited driving and driving while intoxicated, according to CourtConnect. He has a Dec. 2 plea and arraignment scheduled in Little Rock District Court. Asked about the circumstances of the arrest, Branch said he would "be in touch."
Callaway, 69, is a retired district teacher.
Sanders, 46, is a community resources manager for the city of Little Rock.
Wiley, 50, who did not respond to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette questionnaire about her position on district issues, is an administrative assistant for the Arkansas Department of Health.
The father of 18- and 10-year-olds and assistant director of day programs at Friendship Community Care, Branch said in response to questions about his candidacy that he wants to contribute to the further development of a district that has a "markedly diverse student population."
Citing his former membership on the Little Rock School Board and his chairmanship of the Little Rock Area Public Education Stakeholder Group, Branch said he has the benefit of insights and established relationships that would aid in improving every student's access to achieving schools while ensuring that the district is being fiscally efficient in the delivery of that education.
Callaway, who retired from teaching after 41 years -- most recently as family and consumer science instructor at J.A. Fair High -- said she considers her run for the School Board, which is an effort to provide equitable opportunities for all students, a civic responsibility. In her campaign, she is advocating for more career technology programs in middle schools, the expansion of mental health services and increased pay for those employees who work directly with students.
Sanders -- who is the father of three sons, is married to a district teacher and is himself a product of the district -- cites his experience in research, budgeting, program development and personnel management for public and nonprofit organizations as qualifiers for School Board service.
"I have worked in youth/family development for the past 24 years and now is the time," Sanders said about his interest in helping "to move LRSD back to one of the top achieving school districts in Arkansas."
The Arkansas Board of Education has placed conditions on the new board that will remain in place until the district exits the Level 5/intensive support category of the state's school accountability system. Those "guardrails" prohibit the new board from changing superintendents, recognizing the Little Rock Education Association as the contract bargaining agent for employees, and initiating lawsuits.
Zone 3 candidates Branch, Callaway and Sanders said exiting the Level 5 category must be a focus of the new board.
"I believe the LRSD School Board should intimately understand these criteria and then work with the LRSD administration and schools to ensure compliance," Callaway said. It's the board's responsibility to ensure that the practices are in place and that there is a showing of student growth and fiscal responsibility "that will effectively deter any future state supervision actions," she said.
Branch called for the formation of an exit strategy.
And Sanders said the first order of business must be a strategic plan that outlines how the district will transition from state control. The plan should include how and when duties should be transferred to the district, he said, and what level of resources the state will provide as well as what is required of the district to remain in good standing.
In regard to any superintendent changes, Branch said it is his preference that the district's current administration remain intact after the district exits Level 5.
Callaway said Superintendent Mike Poore has "done some exceptional things " for the district in terms of forming a bond between the school system and the community. But before endorsing Poore's continued service, she said, she would have to learn more about his vision and agenda.
Sanders said there must be a sound evaluation system based on actual performance of all required responsibilities.
"This information should reflect data collected from the total performance and should be based on criteria established at the beginning of the evaluation period," he said about the superintendent's job.
On the candidates' positions regarding union recognition for the employees, Branch said he would "follow the established governing laws in place regarding the Arkansas Education Association," which is the parent organization to the Little Rock Education Association.
Sanders said that "everyone has the right to fair representation and the right to choose what that representation looks like. I also feel that if the union has been selected by the majority of its members, then because we operate in a democratic process, it calls for that union to be recognized."
Callaway said that as a former teacher and union member, "I support collective bargaining."
"In fact many of the rights and benefits that employees enjoy today are the result of collective bargaining," she said, but added that she would not favor an entity that is not student-centered, nor an entity that would hinder corrective actions against those who are not committed to student achievement and reasonable ethics.
The candidates differed on the proposed extension of the 12.4 debt service mills that is on the ballot. The extension of the millage levy to 2051, when it is otherwise due to expire in 2033, is intended to generate some $200 million for construction and repairs to district schools. If approved, the extension won't increase annual taxes but will require the payment of the taxes for more years.
Branch said he will vote for the extension because he wants state-of-the-art schools staffed with highly qualified employees. Asked about his priorities in regard to facilities, he said they should be modernized and spread across the district based on current demographics "with an eye to future demographic patterns."
As for a new traditional high school in the northwest section of the city, which some residents have called for, Branch said that is a matter to be assessed by the new board.
Callaway called her vote on the extension a personal matter but said she generally supports endeavors to seek funding sources for facilities, salaries and resources. She said she wants, as a top priority, equity between older and new schools.
As for a west Little Rock high school, she said she would be hesitant to support a new school that would cause an extreme adverse effect on other schools and that the funding for the new school would be challenged.
"But it is also very clear that long-term funding would be increased by an increase in student counts that this school would bring. Inherently, students would return from charter and private schools to attend a school in this area. But again, let's take care of the schools we have currently."
Sanders said he won't support the tax question now but, as an elected board member, would urge the board and superintendent to craft a new proposal to present to the public that addresses the specific needs of the district. He said the district has a number of building needs and that those must be assessed and prioritized.
As for a west Little Rock high school, Sanders said there is a need for an option for high school students in west Little Rock but that the decision must come as part of the overall assessment of facilities.
Mason, 62, the uncontested candidate for the Zone 1 board seat, is the father of four adult children and an equal opportunity specialist for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Little Rock native said his purpose in running for the board is to help the district "get back to providing a world class public education to our students."
The son of a former teacher in the district, Mason said he has the ability to work with teachers and administrators and that he wants to "dig deep" in the work of freeing the district from the state's Level 5 accountability classification.
Mason said he likes the state-appointed Poore, and that Poore has done more as a superintendent than the previous five chief executives.
He said he would have no problem with recognizing the union as the collective bargaining agent.
Mason said he intends to vote for the proposed 12.4-mill property tax extension as a way to address commitments to rebuild McClellan as a new home for Cloverdale Middle and to meet other district needs. Repair work at Dunbar Middle is another priority, he said, adding that he would support a new high school on the city's west side to both ease the school commute for high school students as well as present some competition to private schools.
Morning, 26, did not respond to a set of questions sent to candidates about their reasons for running and their positions on the issues.
The board terms are unpaid and have a three-year duration, although the new board, once seated, has some authority to alter the term lengths. Early voting for the Nov. 3 election starts next Monday.