Little Rock School District's expenses-cutting session becomes heated

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.

Tempers flared Thursday as Little Rock School District leaders debated the process for cutting as much as $16 million in expenses -- including employee positions -- in the 2024-25 school year, and do it in compliance with the terms of the LEARNS Act of 2023.

The bickering occurred at a meeting in which the board earlier approved a plan to transition the college-style block schedule used at the middle schools to a hybrid six-period school day for the coming school year. That change in the class scheduling system is one element of the district's plan to cut costs.

School Board member Vicki Hatter at one point in the Thursday meeting asked Superintendent Jermall Wright and her board colleagues for a written plan that separates the positions being recommended for elimination from the individuals who hold those jobs.

"There is a very thorough detailed plan that we have gone over several times," Wright responded to Hatter, adding that the plan -- which was first made public late last year and was linked to the School Board's Thursday night agenda -- is broken into four or five different parts.

"That's what I'm having a hard time [with] -- you're piecing it," Hatter said.

"It's all in one document, Ms. Hatter," Wright said about the draft plan that is available here:

The board discussion then evolved into a debate about whether the School Board can legally offer employees whose positions might be eliminated a hearing before the board to defend their jobs and employment.

Shawn Burgess, the district's chief of human resources and compliance, said the district may not need to hold the hearings because of the language in the LEARNS Act, which in part eliminated the previously longstanding Teacher Fair Dismissal and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act that provided for employee hearings to attempt to save their jobs.

The 145-page multifaceted LEARNS Act, introduced by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and passed by legislators, revamps education in the state.

The law states that a school district cannot adopt adopt a personnel policy that provides more rights to personnel than provided under state law.

The LEARNS Act also says that it should not be interpreted as denying personnel rights provided by other laws.

Burgess said school districts are exploring how to comply with state law and are waiting on a final decision.

"We shouldn't take away their rights," Hatter said. "My hope is we won't strip away rights because of LEARNS. We shouldn't try to find ways to avoid that option."

"I do respect your opinion," Burgess said. "We do have to follow the law. We don't want to go against anyone's rights, but we don't want to break the law, either."

"It's not breaking the law," Hatter said.

Board member Leigh Ann Wilson countered: "The LEARNS Act says you can't do anything more than what the letter of the law says."

Hatter quipped that she "loves" the way other board members choose to participate in the discussion when she is speaking and that she was "seeking understanding" -- regardless of Wilson "doing her standard of walking out of a meeting."

Wilson had at that point moved out of her board seat and into a side room, and Hatter said "leadership should never get so frustrated with adversity ... that they just get up and walk out."

Board member Greg Adams then spoke over Hatter to call for a board vote on going into executive session "to discuss the future employment of personnel positions under consideration for elimination or non-renewal."

Hatter tried to speak over Adams but board President Michael Mason overruled her, telling her that she was being disrespectful to the board and to parliamentary procedure.

The board went into executive session for about 45 minutes. When the board -- minus Hatter and board member Evelyn Callaway -- reopened the meeting to the public, no motions were made or votes taken related to the executive session or personnel. The board adjourned.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act states that all meetings of governing bodies shall be public and that an executive session will be permitted only for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any public officer or employee. The specific purpose of the executive session shall be announced in public before going into executive session. Executive sessions to consider general personnel matters are not permissible.

The School Board will meet again for a work session March 7 and again March 28, during which time it is likely to vote on offering contracts to all employees. In the past, contracts for school district teachers were automatically renewed May 1 for the coming year unless the employee was specifically notified that their contract would not be renewed. That automatic renewal has been eliminated by new state law, Wright has said.

Regarding the School Board's earlier decision Thursday on the middle-school class schedule, Wright said after the meeting that the new schedule will save the district in excess of $1 million.

"The exact figures won't be known until we finish the master scheduling process for 2024-25," he said.

The plan is for a six-period class day in which students would have their English, math and science classes every day and their other courses would meet on alternate days A and B days.

The goal in moving away from the AB block schedule was to eliminate at least 11 teaching positions at a savings of about $1 million.

The current block schedule calls for four 90-minute courses one day -- "A" day -- and another four courses the second day --"B" day.

In proposing the middle school class schedule change, district leaders said that students need some courses such as English and math every day. They also argued that the 90-minute classes require extra effort to plan and teach to keep students engaged and on pace to cover all material.

The new schedule provides for classes that are about 60 minutes in length.

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