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School district ties abound in 3 races

Little Rock candidates vie for seats on board by Cynthia Howell | October 15, 2020 at 7:30 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

Note: This is the third in a series of articles about the candidates for the Little Rock School Board, focusing today on Zones 7, 8 and 9. An article about candidates for Zones 1, 2 and 3 was published Tuesday, followed by Zones 4, 5 and 6 on Wednesday.

The six candidates running in Zones 7, 8 and 9 for election to the new Little Rock School Board include a current member of the district's Community Advisory Board and two people who were on the School Board before the 2015 state takeover of the capital city system.

Ryan Davis and Norma Johnson are vying for the Zone 7 seat representing downtown and east Little Rock.

Greg Adams and Benjamin Coleman are seeking to represent Zone 8, an area generally north of Markham Street to the Arkansas River and east of Shackleford Road.

And Jeff Wood and Kieng Vang-Dings are competing for the district's Zone 9 seat covering the northwest region.

The candidates are running this year to serve in the 21,000-student Little Rock School District, which has operated under state control for nearly six years. The state took over the district -- dissolving the board and putting the superintendent under state direction -- after six of the district's then-48 schools were labeled academically distressed for chronically low student test scores.

Even with a return to local governance, the new board will operate with state-imposed "guardrails" that require the district to retain current state-appointed Superintendent Mike Poore and prohibit employee union recognition until the district is removed from the state's academic accountability system, Level 5/intensive support.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas »]

Zone 7

In Zone 7, Johnson, 61, a former U.S. Marine and a long-time permit technician for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, served on the Little Rock School Board from 2011 to 2014. To extract the district from Level 5/intensive support, Johnson said, the district must monitor data for progress and make adjustments if necessary.

Davis, 39, is director of Children International -- a nonprofit organization to improve the lives of children, youths and families. His community involvement includes board memberships on the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Decarcerate Arkansas.

Davis most recently ran for the Arkansas House of Representatives but lost in a 2019 runoff election to Joy Springer. Springer had previously defeated Johnson in her race for reelection to the Little Rock School Board in September 2014.

As for exiting the state's Level 5 category, Davis said there is a need for clarification to bring focus to the "roving standards."

Both Johnson and Davis in response to questions about their candidacies highlighted their experiences and familiarity with the district and community -- including their graduations from Central High.

"I have the ability to engage with all parties on both sides of the table," Johnson said of her qualifications, adding that she wants "to bring fresh new ideas that would help with improving student achievement." Her goals are to produce college- and career-ready students who enjoy school while receiving the best possible education.

"I would like to contribute in making all LRSD Blue Ribbon Schools," she said, referring to a federal school recognition program.

Davis said he is running "to insist from the rostrum that we stop cold the divestment from traditional public schools, that we resource our schools equitably, that we work with professionals in our schools and recognize their right to collaborate with us and to collectively bargain, that we affirm and educate all children in all schools in word and in deed and in policy."

Davis said it is "a matter of good faith" to recognize the union in which a majority of teachers are members.

Johnson said she did not have a position on recognizing the Little Rock Education Association as the contract bargaining agent, other than to add that employees "can choose whomever or whatever organization they wish to represent them."

Johnson also said she had not yet decided how to vote on the proposed 12.4-mill property tax extension that is on the ballot -- the money from which would be used for school construction and repairs. Johnson also did not have a position on establishing a new high school on the city's west side. Building projects would have to be prioritized, she said, and her focus would have to be on her election zone.

Davis did not answer the questions on the tax extension and a new west high school that were submitted to him, but he did say that Zone 7 has the most schools and some of the oldest structures in the district, including Central High and Dunbar Middle, which are in need of repairs and, in the case of Central, expansion.

In regard to the state-set guardrails for the new board that include the retention of Poore as superintendent, Davis said no one should be comfortable with the concept of "protecting" the job.

"I prefer we work with Superintendent Poore," he said.

Johnson said that once the restrictions on the board are lifted, she would be interested in reviewing the superintendent's contract and conducting a job performance evaluation.

Zone 8

Adams, 58, is a licensed clinical social worker and program coordinator for the Center for Good Mourning and Staff Bereavement Support at Arkansas Children's Hospital. He cited his 30 years of volunteer work as qualifying him for a School Board position. That public service includes his unique experience among the candidates as a former Little Rock School Board president and member, 2010-2015, and co-chairman of the district's Civic Advisory Committee. That advisory committee operated in the first year of the takeover.

"I'm a good listener and a critical thinker," Adams said. "I work well with others, seek common ground, and can respectfully disagree. I care deeply about meeting the needs of all students and am willing to do the work needed to be an effective board member," he said.

Coleman, 41, a real estate investor, said his interest in serving on the board centers on providing safety for students and staff members -- particularly in terms of the effects of the covid-19 pandemic. He said he would work for the proper distribution of resources within a balanced budget to support curriculum and lessons that will lead to improved standardized test scores and student achievement.

"It's time to move forward, not backwards," Coleman said. "My opponent was the president of the LRSD School Board when the state took over. I think it's time for a change and improvement in order to move the district forward. My input would be a valuable asset, a fresh perspective, and an innovative approach to the board."

Involved in the Sturbridge Property Owners Association, a deacon at Second Baptist Church, and part of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity Inc., Coleman has also served in the Volunteers In Public Schools organization for the district. He is a PTA member, a basketball coach at Fulbright Elementary and a carpool volunteer.

Coleman in his response to written questions skipped those regarding Poore's continued role as superintendent, the reinstatement of the Little Rock Education Association as a contract bargaining organization for employees and whether he would support a new traditional high school in the northwest part of the district.

He said he was undecided on the proposed extension of 12.4 property tax mills and that he would work with fellow board members to prioritize any district building and renovation projects as a way to ensure students are in safe environments with appropriate tools for learning.

Adams said the elected board will be responsible for guiding, supporting, evaluating and holding a superintendent accountable.

"The fact that Mr. Poore's job was previously protected should not positively or negatively impact the board's role and relationship with the superintendent," Adams said.

As for union recognition, "if a majority of district employees support the union and request to bargain collectively, the district should respect the decision and partner with the union as the law allows," he said.

Adams wrote that he is "learning towards voting for the millage extension," and he laid out his pros and cons about it. Concerns included the fact that the proposal comes as the district is still under state control and that there is little time to educate the voters about it. But he also noted that the bond market is such that the district can -- at a lesser cost -- generate more money for schools and student needs, and that the new School Board will be the body to decide how to spend the money.

"The bottom line should be what is best for students," said Adams, adding that it is important for the district to fulfill an earlier commitment to rebuild the now vacant McClellan High School as a replacement for Colverdale Middle School. Hall High also needs renovation to make it an attractive magnet option, he said.

As for a new traditional high school in west Little Rock: "I am not certain at this time what the best way forward should be regarding this concern," Adams said. "The new board will need to work with the administration and the community to fully explore the district's possible options."

Zone 9

In Zone 9, the aspiring newcomer to school district leadership is Vang-Dings, who has a Ph.D. and is an immunologist and assistant research professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She said she is running for the board "as a fresh voice" to improve the perception of public education, generate innovation and improvement in science and math education, and invite discourse and collaboration.

"I cannot advocate enough how lives can be changed with student-led scientific inquiry," said Vang-Dings, 45, who came to the United States as a child from Laos. "I believe that all students should have the opportunity to access these science experiences for better citizenry and making informed choices."

She also said she has the distinctive skill set and experiences in science and curriculum design that can "help close the educational equity gap in the LRSD."

Wood, 40, a lawyer, has been the state-appointed chairman of the district's Community Advisory Board for the four years it has existed. The advisory board makes policy, budget and personnel recommendations to Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key.

Wood said he is running for election to the reestablished board because it is "a tremendous opportunity to move school governance past the bickering of the last few decades and do the hard work of student-focused policy making for our schools."

"I'm running with a bent toward reading education, making teacher salaries more competitive and investing resources in the fastest growing part of our city," Wood said. "With the right leadership, this moment can change the trajectory of traditional public education in Little Rock."

Vang-Dings in response to questions about her candidacy said she favored allowing the Little Rock Education Association to be the collective bargaining agent for district employees.

She also said that without a return to the full local control of the district by the School Board, she would vote no on the proposed 12.4-mill property tax extension.

She does support building a new traditional high school in west Little Rock because of its importance to the well-being of the district.

"I want the school to be built as part of a holistic, sustainable plan for elevating our entire district. I'm looking froward to being part of that planning process," she said.

On steps for removing the district from the state's Level 5/intensive support, Vang-Dings said she would advocate for early-education programs; for development of a comprehensive, multi-faceted STEM curriculum; and for investment in teacher training in STEM subjects.

The new board should allow the district's superintendent sufficient time to make improvements and to show he can accomplish his educational vision for the district, Vang-Dings said. "Without a clear vision, the district cannot improve," she said.

Wood, in his response to questions about his candidacy, said his goals include a partnership with the Pulaski County Special School District for a high school to serve northwest Little Rock and west Pulaski County. That would be a preliminary move toward a new traditional Little Rock high school on 40 acres of district-owned property adjacent to Pinnacle View Middle School, he said.

The first step would be to house Little Rock's Pinnacle View Middle and Joe T. Robinson Middle in the Pulaski County Special district together at Pinnacle View Middle, Wood said. All high school students would be assigned to what is now the Robinson Middle and High school campus complex to accomplish "a juggernaut of a high school competing at the highest levels" and "be a tremendous boon to the Little Rock economy."

On other facility matters, Wood called for renovation of the now empty McClellan High campus to replace Cloverdale Middle School, and the renovation of Hall High "to make it attractive to the scientifically minded and artistic students to which the new magnet program is trying to appeal." He also called for improvements to Central High "to remove the mammoth number of portable buildings" and invest in the school's "dilapidated football facilities."

As for the 12.4-mill property tax extension proposed by the district, Wood noted that he voted as a Community Advisory Board member to place the measure on the ballot. But he said he is likely to vote against it. He questioned the wisdom of writing "a blank check for about $200 million to an unknown group of people who will make up the School Board. Instead, the board should be installed and it should commit to how they want to spend this $200 million."

In regard to district teachers, Wood highlighted his advocacy in recent years to improve the district's starting teacher salary from 100th in the state to 67th, adding that "the state's richest district has a long way to go."

He also said he favors the use of a school-by-school, teacher-elected Personnel Policy Committee to represent teacher interests at no cost to the employees -- rather than having a dues-supported union be the contract negotiating agent for the employees.

"This simply isn't the time to be forcing teachers to pay for their voice to be heard," Wood said.

As for Poore's future as the district's superintendent in a locally governed system, Wood called him the "best cheerleader this district has had in a long time" and said he is "thankful for his energy and his contributions to moving the district forward in many ways."

"We must achieve though," Wood continued. "I will expect him and his team to make the necessary changes to move our failing schools out of the basement and move those near the basement to higher levels of accomplishment."

Early voting for the Nov. 3 election starts Monday. School Board members are unpaid. The length of the term is three years, although the new board would have some authority to lengthen that and stagger the terms to avoid the future election of all board seats at one time.


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