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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Don't give up on schools

by John Brummett | October 21, 2021 at 2:55 a.m.

Every good or arguable reason for Little Rock's historically progressive public school supporters to oppose a school debt millage extension--not a debt millage increase, but an extension of existing mills to permit refinancing--seems gone.

Those voters, or many of them, rejected the proposal in 2017 and 2020. But that was mostly from huffiness about the state government taking over the local school district.

Now you'd have to oppose the very concept of public schools to be against this proposal in the special election Nov. 2. That's unless you had given up specifically on public schooling in Little Rock if not generally.

Surely we haven't reached that point.

Or you'd have to have decided that no physical improvements are needed at the district's run-down and long-neglected facilities, particularly in minority communities. And that would deny plain dilapidation.

Or you'd have to believe that a spending plan that spreads capital improvements among all sections of the district--and is more broadly distributed than what was called for in the two previous efforts--is somehow unfair.

The state has now given back control of the district to a locally elected school board, which is performing well so far.

There is--dare I risk jinxing it?--stability and harmony.

The Little Rock district led among school districts in filing litigation overturning the Legislature's ban on school mask mandates. The new school board has budgeted for an overdue pay raise for employees. It voted in one voice--8-0, from the progressive Ali Noland in midtown to the more conservatively minded Jeff Wood in west Little Rock to south Little Rock's Sandrekkia Morning--to refer this millage extension.

There should be no more cries of "taxation without representation."

The state did little for the Little Rock schools during its period of control other than build a competing charter-school system to drain support and resources.

Actually, the state appointed two excellent superintendents. It fired one, Baker Kurrus, because he publicly opposed the charter movement. It replaced him with the other, Michael Poore, who stayed and fought the good fight by accepting that state government currently loves charter schools and that the public schools simply had to deal with that.

I remember when Poore was hired by the state to replace Kurrus. Local school patrons were aghast at the treatment of Kurrus and prejudiced against Poore on the basis that the state had appointed him and he was from Bentonville and everyone knew that all people from Bentonville were Walton-affiliated saboteurs of Little Rock public schools. But they weren't.

Poore and I met for dinner and he told me his goal was that he would so earn the respect of the Little Rock community that he'd be retained as superintendent after the state turned the district back to local control.

I thought fat chance. I thought wrong.

Now this is his third appeal to the community for a simple proposal: Vote to extend by 19 years the 12.4 debt mills already being paid, netting an estimated $300 million in refinancing proceeds to make an overdue investment in school facilities.

Or, you can vote against the proposal, defeat it and wake up the next day paying the same tax rate you'd have been paying by voting yes, but without the cash for improvements.

The plan would:

• Replace the most run-down school, Cloverdale Middle in southwest Little Rock, which serves a minority population and is literally sinking, with a sparkling new K-8 facility rising down the way on Geyer Springs Road on the site of McClellan High School. That is a longtime commitment and plans are ready. For those reasons, practical and moral, it will go first.

• Build a west Little Rock high school for 1,200 students, seeking to serve students attending public elementary and middle schools in the area but having no nearby regular city high school to attend. The school would compete with private schools in the area, which is what public schools must do. West Little Rock parents would have a more accessible and affordable option for their kids after middle school. Private and parochial schools might need to worry. Imagine that.

• Build a new fieldhouse and state-of-the-art auditorium at Little Rock Central.

• Build a practice and performance auditorium at Parkview Arts Science Magnet High School.

• Install new roofs from east to south to north to west and between, at Jefferson, Baseline, Dunbar, Metro, Henderson, Washington, Romine and Martin Luther King schools.

For the first time in decades, really, things are looking up a little for the Little Rock public schools.

But as much as fine new facilities, public schools in Little Rock need the positive spirit of celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 2, and a new bounce in their step on Wednesday, Nov. 3, based on a warm feeling that the community is back with them.

Early voting starts Tuesday.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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