The Little Rock School Board voted 4-3 Thursday night to buy out the contract of Superintendent Roy Brooks (shown with reporters after vote).
The board, at a special meeting called at mid-afternoon for 5 p.m., quickly moved to a public discussion of the motion to buy out Brooks. The three members who wanted to retain Brooks -- Baker Kurrus, Melanie Fox and Larry Berkeley -- argued that insufficient notice was given. Chip Welch, the attorney hired to handle the Brooks matter, argued that the rules allow a special meeting called by the president, in brief consultation with the superintendent, for this matter.
But the larger issues were raw and racial. Baker Kurrus, who's been a calm and informed voice on the School Board, said the dismissal of Roy Brooks would take the district down the drain, the suggestion being that support would erode as whites fled the district because of Brooks' firing. He's most assuredly right if even people as smart and caring as Kurrus truly believe the district rises or falls on one man, particularly one who's been demonstrably divisive and a captive of a narrow segment of the business community, many of them long foes of public education. He's assuredly right if the people like Kurrus feel they must make their prophesy come true by taking their bruised feelings and abandon a school district over one man's job.
Board member Larry Berkeley said he'd been speaking privately with other board members -- yes, a member who has argued that rules should be followed strictly apparently talked secretly with other board members in violation of the FOI law -- and said he believes there could be a work-out of the Brooks matter with a something like a probationary period for the superintindent and a reconciliation process. Given his role in whipping up a frenzy in support of Brooks, it was hard to accept his proposal as anything but a delaying action in hopes a future election could return a board majority supportive of Brooks.
Board President Katherine Mitchell bristled at Kurrus' remarks about the destruction of the school district. People with means have always been able to vote with their feet, she said, and did in 1957 when she attended Little Rock schools. Poorer people, particularly black people, have been left behind and the Little Rock schools have done well by many of them, she said. She said she wanted to keep a diverse population in the school, but she said she was not ready to accept that an all-black school, in itself, is a bad thing.
Before the vote (Charles Armstrong, Michael Daugherty and Dianne Curry joined Mitchell), Welch (shown above) said he believed the buyout was the best solution to a difficult problem, but said he couldn't guarantee Brooks wouldn't sue over the termination. He said he doubted he could prevail in a case for damages.
The money will come out of district operating funds. Kurrus said the district was "broke" and couldn't afford it. The district spends about $300 million annually.
In response to a question from Fox, Brooks said his contract wasn't "for sale" and that he wanted to continue to work. And, when the board began its regular session, he soldiered on in good spirits, starting with a recitation of awards won by schools, students and teachers in the district. It was a good point to pause for those, like me, who found Brooks a divisive force but who isn't entirely settled with the new leadership. Some in the angry group anxious for Brooks' departure also are seemingly anxious to destroy such centers of excellence as Central High, a magnet for top students and teachers. It's not a perfect place, but the district is richer for it, not poorer. Its destruction would be a bad idea symbolically and practically. It is on matters such as this that the new majority, feeling its oats and showing unhappiness at being defined in racial terms, must demonstrate that their leadership is indeed not about race.From Jennifer Barnett Reed: