The Little Rock School Board voted 6-2 Thursday night to combine the West High School of Innovation on Ranch Drive with the Hall STEAM Magnet High School on Hall's midtown campus, starting with the 2024-25 school year.
Superintendent Jermall Wright told the board that the district can't afford to support two small high schools. The plan to merge the special-program schools -- one with an enrollment of 270 and the other with 307 students -- reduces the city's five campuses to four -- at least until the construction of a 1,200-seat high school in the northwest part of the city is completed by 2026.
The district's other high schools -- Central, Parkview and Southwest -- have 1,000 to 2,200 students each.
Wright also called the merger plan a "lifeline" for Hall High, which has been a district institution since the 1950s and has a capacity for more than 1,000 students but has been struggling in recent years to develop programs in arts and sciences to build its enrollment.
The high school merger decision comes at a time when the 19,952-student capital city district is facing some $15 million in budget cuts for next year as the result of annually declining student enrollment and increased debt service payments.
The board made the decision on combining the two schools at a session Thursday in which it also heard from state Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, and former state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, about their views on the school district's future operations in light of the LEARNS Act of 2023 that revamps public education in the state.
The law, championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, raised beginning teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000 and greatly expanded the ability of students and families to use public taxpayer money to pay tuition and other private school costs.
Elliott urged the board to create a world-class school district and not be dictated to by others on how to be adequate.
The school campus merger also comes as the district is in the early stages of building the new high school on the same Ranch Drive site as the West School of Innovation, creating potential for disruptions in traffic, utilities and building access for the School of Innovation faculty and students.
"I know that there are awesome things happening at both institutions, at West High School of Innovation and at Hall," Wright said. "This could give us the opportunity to create that one small high school in our district that I think we can fiscally support -- if we can get the number to at least 500 kids."
Parents and teachers affiliated with the innovation school addressed the board, asking that the school be preserved.
Shelly Rhodes, a parent at the School of Innovation, said that Wright's administration over the past 1½ years has attempted to alter and now eliminate the School of Innovation.
"By voting for this option you are essentially capitulating to this agenda; the long-term consequences have not yet been explored," Rhodes said.
Megan Prettyman, a former teacher at the School of Innovation, said a lot of extra work went into the establishment of the School of Innovation, and she asked that the district not destroy working programs at either high school. She also asked that teachers' jobs be protected.
Hall High faculty members also addressed the board, refuting implications made in previous meetings that the mid-city campus is unsafe. Carlton McGee, Hall's new principal this year, described the school faculty as phenomenal and the best he's worked with in five districts and three states. He also said that the school had no physical altercations between students in the month of September.
Twenty-year Hall English teacher Jennifer Diggs said she feels the school is moving in a positive direction and, while there are fights at all schools, she feels safe at Hall.
"Our students are learning and growing," Diggs said.
Details for merging the campuses will be worked out in the coming weeks and months by teams of faculty and students from both of the campuses, Wright said, adding that district leaders are conferring with the Arkansas Department of Education on how best to preserve the innovation status.
Schools must meet certain requirements on programs and faculty support to be designated by the state as schools of innovation.
Wright said there are a number of options presented by the state to continue the innovation status.
"And we also know that there are several components of the Hall program that we would like to maintain," Wright said.
Board member Ali Noland questioned the timing of the proposal, asking why it was necessary to immediately make a permanent decision on Hall and West High School of Innovation before the district makes forthcoming decisions on school closures and repurposing of buildings on a districtwide basis in the coming weeks.
Wright said that the board must decide as soon as next week on the guaranteed maximum cost of the new high school -- commonly referred to as the west high school. That cost and the timeline for building depends on whether the construction will be done with the School of Innovation open or closed, he said.
Board members voting for the merger were President Michael Mason, Noland, Greg Adams, Vicki Hatter, Sandrekkia Morning, and Norma Johnson. Opponents were Joyce Wesley and Evelyn Callaway. Board member Leigh Ann Wilson was absent.
Adams made the motion to approve the superintendent's recommendation for the merger, saying that the status quo of two small schools is not sustainable.
Adams also noted that northwest Little Rock residents have been adamant over the years in the desire to have a traditional high school with an athletic program in that part of the city. Yet, he didn't want elements of the School of Innovation to be lost to the district.
"We want to protect the good in the two schools. This plan gives us that possibility," he said.
The School of Innovation has an atten dance zone but is also open to students throughout the district.
Callaway said she objected to closing any school and that the decision on Hall and the West High School of Innovation was being rushed. She said she fears that the Hall campus will ultimately be closed.