Ideas flow in to Little Rock School District on improvements

District seeking proposals as it faces issue of budget cuts

FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

More than 80 individuals and groups have submitted dozens of ideas to the Little Rock School District for cutting millions of dollars in expenses while increasing student enrollment and generally improving district services.

Superintendent Jermall Wright and other district leaders had asked for the online input last month after telling the district's School Board that the capital city district is continuing to lose students and is facing as much as $15 million in budget cuts for the 2024-25 school year.

Ideas from the public were collected over the course of two weeks. The deadline was Friday evening. The proposals from employees, parents of students, and community members are accessible for public viewing at the "Optimizing LRSD" link on the website.

Wright has announced a series of forums to now explore the ideas that could affect school operations, including the school and program choices that students and families will make this winter for the coming school year.

The first of the forums, which will be in-person and online, begin Wednesday with a noon session at Pinnacle View Middle School and an evening session at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Several of the submitted ideas touch on expanding prekindergarten seats in the 19,952-student district, and altering or closing Hall STEAM Magnet High and Western Hills Elementary, which have been or are expected to struggle for students.

Chris Burks, a parent, was among those advocating for additional prekindergarten seats, closing some campuses and revitalizing middle school staffing.

Burks also suggested exploring a merger with the Pulaski County Special School District.

"In my view, setting up a process to explore merging with the PCSSD is the best long-term choice to set up all LRSD students for success," Burks wrote. "Further, our diversity is our strength, and we have to better focus on our greatest strengths."

Roy Ford, a community member, and Briana Austin, a district employee, had similar proposals regarding the school week and high school campus numbers.

"To save money West [High School of Innovation] and Hall need to merge permanently and the district can go to four days in person," Austin wrote. "To retain/attract students the district can offer more Advanced Placement courses along with different regular courses," she said.

"Shifting to a four-day school week will yield substantial cost savings in utilities, transportation, and staffing expenses. Moreover, it can lead to improved teacher retention and job satisfaction," Austin explained..

Still other examples of the ideas suggested include those by Gary Newton, the chief executive officer and president of Arkansas Learns, a school choice advocacy organization. Newton proposed moving Pulaski Heights Middle School to the Hall High campus so that Pulaski Heights Elementary can expand into the current middle school space. Alternatively, he suggested that Forest Heights STEM Academy kindergarten through eighth grade and Hall combine and absorb the West School of Innovation.

Newton and others proposed more prekindergarten seats in west Little Rock and a more efficient student transportation system to be operated in conjunction with Rock Region Metro transit system, the Pulaski County Special School District, open-enrollment charter schools and independent schools.

Alisha Lewis, a parent who works for the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, advocated for a stronger program of enabling high school students to earn concurrent college credit. She said that kind of college credit can be done at little cost to the student.

"[I] have very little doubt that the next round of educational legislation will include more attention to higher education, career and technical education, and exposure of high school students to these options," Lewis wrote about concurrent credit. "It would be great if LRSD chose to be a pilot program showcasing best practices of early college in advance of the inevitable."

Parent and district employee Mariah Reescano wrote: "Increase arts offerings at elementary and middle schools. Including drama and dance. Arkansas A+ schools can help with grants to cover costs of professional development. Students will be more engaged in learning. Parents will be excited about opportunities for their child," she said.

A team headed by Jeremy Bettinardi wrote: "Update the auditorium at Mann Magnet Middle. The lighting is the most pertinent thing to be updated. Mann was a highly respected school for performing arts students and enrollment has been on the decline with lack of resources -- like a usable auditorium," the team wrote.

District Principal Theresa Courtney-Ketcher proposed using the Henderson School building to house in one location district administration offices that are now spread out around the district. The Henderson property is centrally located on John Barrow Road and easily accessed from Interstate 630, she said, for offices that deal with child nutrition, day treatment and alternative learning services, student registration, special education, early childhood education and security.

Community member Carmen Mosley-Sims had a similar proposal but suggested that Hall High be the site for consolidating administrative services.

Leila Chavez proposed closing and selling all purely administrative buildings and having those personnel work remotely. She suggested that the district's high school juniors and seniors be called on to make building repairs as part of their vocational skills training.

Chavez had several other proposals, one of which was to establish a parent welcome center at the Park Plaza Mall.

Suggestions made by James Charles included freezing employee hiring and equipment purchases, stopping all student field trips and moving all summer school online so that schools can be completely shut down in the summer.

Deborah Chaney, a grandmother, said the district's efforts to improve building appearances and programs won't be successful in attracting and retaining students until bullying stops.

District employee Clayton Bemburg said the district needs to close and combine under-enrolled buildings at the elementary and secondary levels.

"We cannot support five high schools in this district," he said. He also pointed out that the larger Springdale School District has 30 campuses to the 38 in Little Rock.

In asking for suggestions for operating the school district more efficiently, district leaders placed on the website information on the number of buildings in the district, their age, and the construction needs. A study of past, current and future enrollment trends -- tied to housing construction -- is also included.

Community meetings

Community meetings -- in-person and virtual -- to discuss the budget cutting and student recruitment proposals will be at the following times and places:

Nov. 8: Noon, Pinnacle View Middle School.

Nov. 8: 6 p.m., Martin Luther King Elementary School.

Nov. 10: 8 a.m., Hall STEAM Magnet High School.

Nov. 11: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Spirit Fest Table, Park Plaza Mall.

Nov. 13: 6 p.m., Chicot Elementary.

Nov. 15: Noon, online with a link that will be announced later.

Nov 15: 6 p.m. online with a link to be announced later.

Nov 17: Noon at Western Hills Elementary School.

Each of the sessions will be recorded and uploaded for later viewing.

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