Terence Bolden and former Sen. Jim Argue are no longer co-chairs of the community-based strategic planning commission that has recommended ways for the Little Rock School District to improve student achievement.
Their decision to step away from the process is, though not described by them in interviews this way, clearly a reflection of continuing tension between the planning work and Superintendent Linda Watson. From the beginning of the year-long process, Watson has viewed the work as either a criticism of or threat to her leadership. Indeed, the School Board has a diversity of views on how successful she's been, reflected in the decision this year not to automatically add a year to her contract. It runs through the next school year.
The strategic plan begins with an assumption of strong, effective leadership that can trim wasteful jobs while concentrating efforts where it will produce results, particularly in the classroom. The question of the moment is whether the School Board will press for it and measurable results from Watson or, failing that, a change in leadership.
The decision wasn't announced. I called Argue about it after receiving a tip and a hint in internal School District e-mails. Argue says he doesn't characterize his and Bolden's decision as a "resignation." But he said they'd been frustrated by the administration's slow movement in beginning work on communicating the outline of the strategic plan to the public. Bolden said much the same thing.
"We felt more like more hindrance than resource and so decided to not have any further involvement," Argue said.
Argue said the committee had completed its assignment of producing a strong plan for improving the district. Now, it's up to the School Board and leadership. "If it's not effectively implemented, we're wasting our breath," Argue said.
UPDATE: I obtained a copy of the Argue/Bolden letter to Watson, which went to Board members. You'll find it on the jump. She has not returned my call seeking a comment. Though Bolden and Argue had not released the letter -- and had been diplomatic in their remarks to me -- it makes clear the tensions I have already described. It's a tough letter that depicts Watson as an obstacle to major change.
What will the Board do?
Watson mentioned their change of status obliquely in a recent e-mail to board members that said Argue and Bolden would "not be involved" in the communication of the strategic plan to the public. She said a public relations firm, The Design Group, is working on that and distributed a barebones outline it had produced. Board President Diane Curry said she had "concerns" about their "parting" because she thought the planning process had been successful to date.
Bolden told me: "Went through a grueling process with a good cross-section of our community. We worked across racial lines to get a good plan on the table. We delivered it. The second phase was to engage the community and take steps to implement the plan. To date that has not happened. It has been highly frustrating to work thorugh this process and figure out where we go from here. It’s now in hands of administrators and the board to say to the community what’s to happen next with our school districts."
LETTER TO LINDA WATSON
Thank you for the opportunity to serve the LRSD as co-chairs of the Strategic Planning Commission during this past year. We believe the commission has formulated an effective plan to guide the district in the future, and we wish you and your team every success in effectively implementing the plan and achieving its student achievement goals.
We have decided to withdraw from any further participation with this process. It has been quite frustrating for us to deal with all the misunderstandings, lack of trust, and control issues we’ve been burdened with throughout the process. From the very beginning we struggled with your desire to tightly control the process, e.g. selection of consultants, predetermination of district priorities, your insistence we should only “tweak” the district’s previous plan. You bristled when we raised the issue of the district’s use of stimulus funds. You seem to be threatened by anything you do not control, and we’ve been unable to build the sense of trust that would allow us to overcome that obstacle. The important task at hand always seems to end up being subordinated to your insecurities.
You are the superintendent, and you are certainly free to pursue whatever management style you believe works best for you and your board. However, we’ve been frustrated by the lack of communication, the sense that you were not fully committed to the plan and its effective implementation, and your constant concerns with your control and authority.
Our personal commitments to you to help develop the strategic plan have been honored, and now that we’ve reached this juncture, you and the board can share the plan with the community and implement the plan as you see fit. We do wish you every success, but we are now convinced we’ve done all the good we can and have now become more of a hindrance than a resource to you.