Campus closures studied by Little Rock School District

Decision possible by next month

Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright answers questions from the public at a forum in the School District administration building in Little Rock in this April 18, 2022 file photo. Wright was still a candidate for the job when this photo was taken. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Little Rock Superintendent Jermall Wright said Friday that district staff will use the Thanksgiving holiday to begin assembling proposals for possibly closing and/or re-purposing campuses for cost savings.

A draft plan could go to the School Board as soon as Dec. 7 for possible board action on Dec. 14.

The district planning comes after Wright and his staff in October invited the public to submit ideas for enhancing the operation of the 19,925-student district that is facing $15 million in budget cuts for the 2024-25 school year while also trying to bolster sagging enrollment.

That year-to-year drop in student numbers has left the district with more buildings than it has students to fill them, Wright has said.

The invitation generated some 91 proposals, including some 22 that dealt specifically with campus use -- 11 of which are considered feasible at this point. At a series of in-person and online community forums that began Nov. 8, Wright has asked participants to respond to the proposals and offer some of their own. The final forum will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 27 at Southwest Community Center.

"You gave us some things to consider that we haven't considered before," Wright told a group of about 30 neighborhood, city government and school employees who convened for an hour at noon Friday at Western Hills Elementary.

Other sessions have been at Pinnacle View Middle, Chicot Elementary, Martin Luther King Elementary and Hall High.

"Honestly, that's what this whole process is really about," Wright continued. "We know there are ideas that exist outside of our minds. We want to hear from those within the community who can help us not just for one particular school but to make our entire district stronger and better."

At the Western Hills session on Friday, much of the focus was on preserving Western Hills and Parkview Arts and Sciences Magnet High.

Andrea Lewis, a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, called for the district to retain Parkview as a high school and use money allotted for a new high school in northwest Little Rock for upgrading the Parkview building.

"That community cannot afford to become an educational desert," Lewis said about the Barrow Road area of town. "I say that we are down to Romine Elementary [on Twin Lakes Drive] being a pre-kindergarten. Great. We need early childhood. But if you take Parkview away, what does that community on that side of town have?"

She said her group of audience members also favored building the west high school and adjusting the student attendance zone for Central High.

Julia Gentry spoke for an audience group that specifically looked at ways to repurpose schools. She said there was support for using the former Henderson Middle School for an increased number of district administrative offices because of its size, enclosed design and easily accessible location. Consolidating offices into one building would reduce maintenance costs.

Gentry's audience group was also supportive of a plan to make the separate Pulaski Heights Elementary and Pulaski Heights Middle School a combined kindergarten through eighth grade school, similar to the Forest Heights, J.A. Fair and the soon-to-open Marian G. Lacey K-8 academies.

Gentry and Dewayne Green, a parent of a child at Western Hills, lobbied Wright to keep Western Hills Elementary in operation. Western Hills' enrollment is expected to drop to under 200 next year when pupils in the former Meadowcliff attendance zone move next August to the new Lacey campus. Meadowcliff was closed after the 2021-22 school year and pupils were assigned to Western Hills temporarily.

The Lacey school will replace not only Meadowcliff, but also Baseline Elementary and Cloverdale Middle schools.

Gentry suggested that there are new families with children moving into the Western Hills neighborhood and she brought up the possibility of featuring a nature theme at the school.

Green suggested that the school could partner with the nearby First Tee and other youth golf programs to distinguish the school from others.

Another possibility is to use a nearby park and trails to promote biking among students, and draw on resources at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to teach foreign language and/or cyber security at the neighborhood school. Green also said Western Hills could offer therapies and otherwise be a school for students who are autistic or otherwise "sensory sensitive."

The Little Rock School Board earlier this month voted to permanently merge the West High School of Innovation with the Hall STEAM Magnet High at the Hall campus that could result in savings of as much as $4.2 million, Wright said. The savings is dependent on how many students sign up for the combined school and how many teacher positions will be needed at the Hall campus, he said.