NOT THE ANSWER: Superintendent Dexter Suggs hasn't demonstrated he's the man to save the Little Rock School District alone.
Armed with stats massaged and manipulated by a Walton-financed lobbyist, Gary Newton, the white business community has mounted an orchestrated campaign to have the state take over the Little Rock School District
and then soon, if the Waltons' probable grand scheme is realized, to turn it over to private school management corporations.
You rarely go wrong betting on the money.
But before the coverage begins, a few points about the narrative the Waltons' lobbyist has developed (and there are many other statistical measures that have been taken out of context in the war on the district).
* Little Rock's low ranking among state school districts
. The only fair ranking is to compare Little Rock with school districts with similar minority and poverty populations. And to compare performance of subgroups against performance of subgroups. The critics don't do that.
* Firing teachers
. The School Board has fired only one teacher in decades. So what? The School Board enters the picture only on appeal of firing. The only meaningful gauge of personnel evaluation is how many teachers have been fired and not appealed, or been discouraged from returning to teach or otherwise left for reasons other than retirement or relocation. It might be the Little Rock School District doesn't rigorously evaluate teachers and either improve or lose poor teachers. But we have no figures on which to judge.
* Who's to blame?
The critics want to fire the School Board. Yet principals are the first line of defense against poor teachers. The superintendent is in charge of principal selection. The superintendent's administration is in charge of strategies for school improvement. What has the School Board blocked Suggs from doing? There have been principled disagreements on how to reshape Hall High (an objective ALL agree is necessary), but resistance to Suggs' ideas is a charge easier to level than support. (Even he didn't cite any specific obstruction when asked directly about it this morning; he merely said he feared continuing board cooperation in the years ahead.) The critics also hate the teachers union. Yes, there is a state fair dismissal law. If supervisors are too lazy or stupid to identify and either improve or remove poor teachers, it's not the union's fault. It's not the union's fault that the administration has allowed overreliance on long-term substitutes and uncertified teachers in some places. Also, great teachers with difficult students sometimes "fail," if test scores are your God. Terrible teachers with brilliant students generally "succeed," if test scores are your God.
* Suggs is the answer.
Based on what? That he's rigorously evaluated and overseen by the School Board and the critics don't like them? Or is it merely that he's sent a signal he'll do whatever the Chamber of Commerce wants? His track record to date isn't sterling. His own academic record is not illustrious, a subject on which I'll have more later if the state Board not only takes over the district but leaves Suggs in charge. That would NOT amount to the sweeping change the critics say is necessary.
* The entire district is failing.
It's a libel on hundreds of teachers and thousands of students and their committed parents. You have to question the study skills of anyone who issues such a sweeping verdict against facts to the contrary.
I've said before and I'll say again: It's a tough call. Forced to make a strictly objective decision, uninfluenced by some of the personal agendas at work, I don't know what I'd do. But I do know firing the School Board and busting up the union for a district led by Dexter Suggs is NOT the answer. And it will further fracture an already divided city.
UPDATE: Example, Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen sent me a statement he's sent to the state board opposing a takeover. It follows:
I urge you to reject the attempt to disenfranchise the voters who have entrusted the Little Rock School Board with responsibility for governing the Little Rock School District for two reasons.
First, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Little Rock School District is not lawfully governed by the presently composed Little Rock School Board (LRSB). Each LRSB member holds office after having won election by registered voters within the LRSD. The votes have been counted and the election results were duly certified. Any action which divests governance of the Little Rock School District from its democratically elected Board will amount to impeachment of each Board member, without trial and with without any charge that any Board member, let alone the entire Board, has committed an offense deserving impeachment. And such action would subject the electors of the Little Rock School Board to taxation without representation.
Second, there is no credible evidence that the Little Rock School Board, as presently constituted, has failed to discharge the legal obligations to govern the Little Rock School District in the manner required by the Arkansas statutes, federal statutes, the Constitution of Arkansas, or the Constitution of the United States. The presently constituted LRSB, to its credit, is laboring to overcome the cumulative effect of race discrimination, poverty, and willful actions by many political leaders and private actors bent on noncompliance with the legal and moral obligation to provide free public education to every student in an efficient and fair manner.
Current problems in LRSD schools that are designated "academically distressed" were not caused by the School Board you are asked to dissolve. None of these Board members should be faulted for those problems.
In 1927 Little Rock Senior High School opened to the claim of being the most beautiful high school in the United States. It was built to accommodate 3000 students. The library had 11,000 books. The principal was paid $500 per month. The school boasted a gymnasium and stadium. The school and it's facilities were built with tax funds. All the teachers and students at LRSHS were white.
Meanwhile, M.W. Gibbs High School—the school for Little Rock black students—was in disrepair. When black parents complained about the need for a decent school building, it was discovered that the money appropriated for a new black high school in Little Rock had been "diverted" to construct Little Rock Senior High School.
A new high school for black students was finally constructed thanks to funding provided by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, the John D. Rockefeller Foundation, and local fundraising. That new school was Dunbar School for Industrial Arts. Dunbar had no gymnasium and no stadium. The library had less than half the books at LRSHS. The Dunbar principal was paid $335 per month.
Little Rock Senior High School is now known as Little Rock Central High School. I cite this history to show you how previous LRSD School Boards controlled by white politicians and community leaders acted to defraud black children and voters. That fraud was fully known by State leaders. No member of the School Board that authorized, condoned, or who was complicit in that colossal fraud was ever removed.
This history reveals the naked hypocrisy at the root of the action you are asked to take. The Little Rock School Board you are asked to dissolve has done nothing that justifies it being dissolved. Instead, you are being urged to commit an act of tyranny by people who must surely know that this School Board is more representative, cohesive, and committed to serving all students than all of its predecessors, without exception.
History will not be kind to the people who seek to have the current Little Rock School Board dissolved. I urge you to not align yourselves with those actors. Allow the duly elected School Board to work to remedy decades of discrimination and hypocrisy so that all children in the LRSD can get the fair, efficient, and decent education they deserve.