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Zone changes portend 2022 elections for all Little Rock School Board seats

by Cynthia Howell | September 26, 2021 at 5:36 a.m.
"I Voted" stickers sit on a table, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at the Cambridge City Hall annex, on the first morning of early voting in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Little Rock School Board election zones are in line for changes because of population shifts that occurred among the zones between the 2010 and 2020 as shown by U.S. census counts.

With the changes in the zone boundaries comes the likelihood that all School Board positions will have to be open for election in the November 2022 election, Superintendent Mike Poore told board members last week.

"My best guess ... is that you are going to make changes within all the zones, and the reality of that means we are going to have to have an election for all board members in November 2022," Poore said.

"At one time, we thought maybe only two areas of the city would have to be changed and we would not have to have elections for every seat," Poore said, but that a majority of attorneys consulted on the matter had advised districtwide elections in 2022.

The Little Rock School District is one of dozens in Arkansas facing election zone boundary changes and the election of all board seats next year because of the new census counts.

Typically, board seat elections are staggered so that not all seats are open in any one year.

News of the zone changes and potential for districtwide elections arrives less than a year after the nine-member Little Rock board was elected last November and December. Those 2020 elections followed six years in which the capital city school system was under state control and without an elected board.

Nineteen people ran for the nine open seats in 2020, with some candidates spending tens of thousands of dollars to be elected to the unpaid positions. Subsequently, the elected board has received training from outside consultants on how to operate as a board. That training continues, with sessions planned for this week.

Little Rock board members were elected from single-member zones that were drawn based on the 2010 U.S. census numbers -- the latest numbers available at that time.

Arkansas Geographic Information Systems developed a number of election zone options for use in the 2020 elections. And now the Little Rock district has engaged the agency to develop options for reconfigured zones that are based on the latest census data.

The options for reconfigured zones could go to the Little Rock board on Oct. 8 to be ready for board review as soon as Oct. 14, Poore said last week.

The options will be available for public comment at an Oct. 28 forum, which will be in advance of a possible School Board vote to select an option Nov. 18.

The new election zones will have to meet requirements set in state and federal law. The zones have to be substantially equal in population as well as compact and contiguous -- meaning that a zone can't include a satellite zone some distance apart from the main zone.

"You don't want 'fingers' running all over the place ... or detached pieces over here," Jonathan Duran, deputy director of Arkansas Geographic Information Systems, told the board about the shapes of zones.

The 2020 census shows that population in the nine zones has changed in the past 10 years to the point that the counts in two of the current zones are as much as 7% below the target population of 20,121 people per zone.

Those underpopulated zones are Zone 7 in east and downtown Little Rock and Zone 8 in northwest Little Rock.

[SCHOOL BOARD ELECTION: Little Rock zone map not appearing above? Click here » arkansasonline.com/926lrzones/]

Two other zones -- Zone 1 in southwest Little Rock and Zone 4 in west Little Rock-- exceed the targeted 20,121 people by more than 5%.

Only three of the nine current zones have populations that fall within acceptable variances from the targeted population, Duran said. Acceptable variances are considered plus or minus 5% of the targeted population.

And while the populations in some Little Rock zones are acceptable, those zone boundaries are likely to have to be changed to accommodate the adjustments for the other zones.

Duran called it a" cascading effect."

As an example, the district's Zone 7 that encompasses east and downtown Little Rock is well below the targeted population of 20,121. Zone 7 will have to grow into the adjoining Zones 5 and 6 in north-central and central Little Rock, which will cause those zones boundaries to have to change to keep within an acceptable range.

Similarly, the underpopulated Zones 2 and 3 in south-central Little Rock likely will have to grow into the overpopulated Zone 1 in southwest Little Rock. Alternatively, Zone 3 could acquire part of Zone 4 in west Little Rock.

Poore warned that any plan to keep the zones as is likely would produce a legal challenge.

School Board member Evelyn Callaway of Zone 3 expressed strong concerns about the changes and the effect they could have on the current board members.

"Someone is going to get the short end of the stick," she said.

Board members last year drew straws for term length of two to five years.

Callaway also questioned the process of changing the zone lines during a pandemic and whether the 2020 census was accurate because of the effect of the pandemic on population data collection.

Board member Jeff Wood said that the Geographic Information Systems agency produced zoning options in 2020 in a very open way that generated very little criticism. Wood also noted that school zone changes are data driven and without a lot of the political partisanship that is involved in drawing zones for Congress and the state Legislature.

Ultimately, it is the current board that will make decisions on any zone changes and not the geographic information agency, board member Greg Adams added.

Members of the Little Rock School Board and the years their current terms are set to expire are: Zone 1, Michael Mason, 2025; Zone 2, Sandrekkia Morning, 2025; Zone 3, Callaway, 2024; Zone 4, Leigh Ann Wilson, 2024; Zone 5, Ali Noland, 2023; Zone 6, Vicki Hatter, 2023; Zone 7, Norma Johnson, 2025; Zone 8, Adams, 2022; and Zone 9, Wood, 2022.

Print Headline: Census data sets up redrawing of Little Rock school election zones

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