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Little Rock School Board to weigh campus-visit proposals

by Cynthia Howell | September 22, 2022 at 3:29 a.m.
A school bus passes as students head into the building for the first day of school at Little Rock Central High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Little Rock School Board is going into tonight's monthly business meeting with at least three options for a policy that will set the parameters for board member visits to school campuses.

School Board members are required by state law to visit schools while students and staff are present, but the law leaves it up to boards to determine the boundaries for those visits.

The policy dispute among Little Rock board members is one of multiple items on the agenda for the 5:30 p.m. meeting that is open to the public, livestreamed on and, and broadcast on Comcast Channel 4 and U-verse Channel 99.

Other agenda items include:

• Appointment of Joyce Wesley to fill the board's Zone 9 vacant seat.

• Action on the district's 2022-2023 budget.

• Authorizing a request for proposals for renewable energy systems.

• Use of $1.2 million in federal covid-19 relief funds for afterschool tutoring.

• Action on financial incentives to retain employees over two years.

The debate among board members over their visits to campuses comes after Parkview Magnet High School Principal Philicia Bell complained last spring about School Board member Vicki Hatter. Bell accused Hatter, in part, of trying to get Bell fired, pressuring her to enroll two students at Parkview without going through the enrollment process, failing to enter the school through its front doors, entering classrooms and teacher work areas without permission, making inappropriate visits to the high school where Hatter's daughter was a student, and interfering with the Student Council's planning for the school's annual prom.

The School Board employed attorneys from an out-of-state law firm to investigate the allegations and make findings of facts and recommendations.The firm concluded that Hatter abused her authority in some cases but did not violate district policies or state law in her visiting the Parkview campus to speak with employees, visit classrooms or bring meals to her child.

The district has since been billed $46,415 by the Dentons law firm for the investigation.

The School Board earlier this month -- after getting the completed investigation report -- considered, but stopped short of, censuring Hatter. Instead, board members voted to recommit themselves to consistently fulfilling their responsibilities as defined in law and policy.

One option for the policy on board member visits to campuses -- offered by Hatter for the board's consideration tonight -- repeats the language of Arkansas Code Annotated 6-13-620 that lists the duties of a school board member. The listed duties, in part, direct that board members "Visit district schools and classrooms when students are present no less than annually and attend some events and functions."

Another draft of a policy -- offered by School Board President Greg Adams -- references the legal responsibility of a board member and states that the obligation may be met in one of several listed ways.

Those include participating in a scheduled school tour, attending events open to members of the public such as an athletic competition, serving as a volunteer in coordination with the school's administration, meeting with the superintendent or designee, attending to official school board or district-related business or related to a board member's own child in the school.

"With the exception of being on campus related to a valid reason as parent of a student in a district school and attendance of events open to members of the public, school board members will inform or consult with the superintendent prior to visiting a school or district building," the draft policy states.

"When visiting a school, a school board member will follow guidelines and procedures required of other visitors such as signing in, checking in with the administrative office, and utilizing doors designated for visitors.

"A school board member who is on a school campus outside the guidelines ... will be considered an unauthorized visitor and asked to leave the campus," the proposed draft concludes.

The Adams' draft policy is the only one that gives consequences for violating the parameters of the policy.

A draft policy offered by board member Ali Noland states that board members must have the ability to access all campuses when students are present to meet their legal obligations.

"The Little Rock School Board is committed to protecting board members' ability to visit school campuses as required by law; we are equally committed to ensuring that our schools remain free from disruption, abuse, harassment, or intimidation," the Noland proposal states. It lists the conditions for a school visit:

• The board member must provide the superintendent advance notice of the visit.

• The board member must abide by all generally applicable rules governing school visitation by the public, including signing in at the front office, wearing a visitor's badge, using approved entrances and exits, and following the directives of campus security or school resource officers.

"While visiting a school campus, a board member may not engage in behavior that jeopardizes school safety, disrupts student learning, or interferes with an employee's ability to perform his or her job. A board member is not permitted to harass, threaten, berate, abuse, or intimidate students, parents, district employees, or volunteers," the draft states.

The Noland draft concludes by saying that an individual board member lacks the authority to interfere with daily operations and is prohibited from making demands of students or staff. Board member concerns should immediately be communicated to the superintendent to be resolved, the draft states.

Noland included with her draft policy a memorandum to her board colleagues explaining her rationale.

She said she agrees with Adams that there should be boundaries on school board member visits to schools but she disagrees with where the boundaries should be.

"We have to take into account the district's need to maintain safe, effective day-to-day operations of schools free from board-member interference," she wrote. "We must also protect our employees from potential harassment or intimidation.

"School-district governance has become a politically charged and often partisan issue nationwide," she continued, "and there are quite a few credible accounts from other districts of individual board members interfering in the daily operations of schools in order to remove books from the library, censor what teachers can say in the classroom, interfere with extracurricular groups such as the Gay-Straight Alliance and Black student organizations, monitor whether teachers wear clothing with any political or social messages that the board member objects to, etc.

"I do not ever want to see LRSD to go down this path," Noland said. "We should adopt a policy that strikes a balance between our need to be able to access our schools and our obligation to prevent individual board members from creating a disruption or safety risk while on campus."

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