Early voting begins Tuesday in a Little Rock School District election that features unopposed incumbent Vicki Hatter for the School Board's Zone 6 seat and two people for the Zone 5 seat -- one of whom withdrew after it was too late to keep her name off the ballot.
Newcomer Anna Strong is seeking election Nov. 14 to the capital city's School Board from the district's Zone 5 that encompasses north-central Little Rock. The seat is currently held by Ali Noland, who did not file to run for a second term and endorsed Strong to be her successor.
Donnally Davis also filed as a candidate for the Zone 5 seat Aug. 16 but announced Aug. 18 that she would not pursue the seat even though her name would be on the ballot.
That puts Davis in the unusual role of an election spoiler.
She cannot win the election and hold the board seat, according to Pulaski County Election Coordinator Amanda Dickens.
But if Davis receives more votes than Strong, the Zone 5 seat will be declared vacant and will continue to be held by current board member Noland. If Noland chooses to resign from the seat, the remaining board members would have to appoint someone to fill the seat until the 2024 school election in the 19,952-student district.
"She withdrew but her votes still count since it was after the ballot was certified," Strong said about Davis' name being on the ballot. "While she can't win because she formally withdrew from the race, I could lose if she were to get more votes" she said.
"My goal in the campaign has been to educate Zone 5 voters," Strong said, "and make sure they are aware of the fact that there are two people on the ballot whose votes do count, and make sure that they know I am here, I am running and I'm in the race."
The Zone 5 and Zone 6 terms are for five years and are unpaid.
In addition to the Zone 5 and uncontested Zone 6 board seats, the Little Rock School District ballot asks for approval or disapproval of the district's current 46.4-mill property tax. The district has proposed no change in that tax rate, and the rate is only on the ballot because of a requirement in the state Constitution that it be so. The millage rate will not change regardless of the Nov. 14 vote.
Early voting in the Little Rock School District can be done Tuesday through Thursday at the Pulaski County Regional Building, 501 Markham St., or the John Gould Fletcher Library, 823 N. Buchanan St., and on Monday, Nov. 13, at the Pulaski County Regional Building only. Neither early voting site will be open on Nov. 10 in observance of Veterans Day, nor on the weekend days of Nov. 11 and 12.
Several polling places will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Zone 5 on the Nov. 14 election day. Little Rock district residents who live outside of Zone 5 can vote on election day on Hatter for the Zone 6 board seat and on the district's current 46.4 mill-tax rate at the Pulaski County Regional Building.
Newcomer Strong, 42, is the executive director of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She grew up in Searcy and graduated from Searcy High before attending Hendrix College where she majored in math and minored in physics. She later completed a double master's degree program through the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' College of Public Health. Those separate degrees are in public health and public service with a focus on health policy.
Strong and her husband, pediatrician Dr. Aaron Strong, are parents of sons, 6 and 2, the oldest of whom attends Pulaski Heights Elementary after attending the district's Fair Park Early Childhood Education Center. Both boys were previously enrolled at the district's Rockefeller Early Childhood Education Center.
"I've always wanted to serve my community and I've always wanted to be able to give back. This feels like a really direct way to do that," Strong said.
Strong points to her experience with boards of directors -- she is governed by a board of directors in her job and she is a member of the board of directors for Forward Arkansas. She recently rolled off the board of directors for the National School Based Health Alliance.
The core role of a board member is to provide fiscal oversight of the organization and make sure the organization's executive officer is strong and has the resources to carry out the organization's goals, Strong said. In the case of the school district, that goal is to help children to be able to thrive in the workforce and in higher education.
One of the ways to promote child well being is to increase the availability of early childhood education in the district, Strong said.
"I'm really excited ... about improving access to child care and pre-k within the Little Rock School District. A lot of families struggle a bit with access to child care," she said and cited data from the Excel By Eight organization that there are five children, ages 0 to 3 years old, per high quality day-care seat in the city of Little Rock. That average jumps to 16 children per quality seat in the city zip codes of 72204, 72209, 72211 and 72223.
That limited access occurs when children are at an age in which 85% of brain development occurs, Strong said.
"If we want our kids to read on grade level by third grade we have to start before they walk in the door to kindergarten. I think we should get creative about how we make sure the slots are available," she said.
A proponent of using available district spaces in innovative or creative ways, Strong suggested that the district open early childhood seats on campuses that are under-enrolled in other grades or need a new purpose.
She also suggested that some district-run early childhood programs could charge tuition, helping the district to increase programs as well as retain employees.
"There are great opportunities to use the infrastructure within school buildings," she said.
Strong describes herself as passionate not only about early childhood education, but also about supporting community schools that provide wrap-around externally provided support to both families and students, and addressing what medical professionals see as a mental health crisis among children and adults.
She said she is energized about the district's growing number of kindergarten-through-eighth grade campuses -- a third one is to open in August -- that can help families avoid "the hard transition" of fifth-graders into a new middle school.
She is anxious, she said, to see the completion of a new full-sized high school in northwest Little Rock.
"I don't want to be short-sighted about what we are doing there ... how the West School of Innovation and the new west high school will work together to build a strong community high school," Strong said. "I also think we have to think about what to do in the short term with two small high schools," she said in reference to recent board discussions about temporarily relocating the West School of Innovation to the Hall STEAM Magnet High campus.
"It's very difficult to manage financially," she said about operating two separate, small high schools, and she is looking to members of the public for ideas.
Noland, who earlier endorsed Strong to be her successor, was elected to the School Board in 2020 as part of the process that released the capital city school system from state control.