by Max Brantley
First, as a general principle we believe providing a world class educational opportunity to every student of Little Rock should be the guiding principle in every decision of the district, and the State Department of Education. We believe any cuts made should be as far as possible from impacting student-teacher interactions and proven educational strategies. Areas such as administration should be considered first for cuts.
We remain deeply disappointed in the district’s lack of engagement and lack of a transparent, accountable process for making decisions such as these proposed budget cuts. Cuts without a legitimate process that builds public support will only exacerbate existing divisions and distrust among the diverse constituencies of LRSD and between Little Rock residents and the state government that still governs our schools.
We do not accept on face value the assertion that cuts of this level need to be made. While the loss of desegregation money is being used as justification, the budget situation has not been examined in full by a legitimate set of stakeholders, and a full set of options in response to the budget has not been considered by any representative or accountable party.
Our first recommendation is to create a process for making budget cuts through legitimate community engagement. We need to establish a common understanding of the budget as a whole, to build public consensus around tough choices that may need to be made, and to dive deeper into complex issues. The process LRSD has proposed, of announcing cuts and giving residents a very short period of time to offer feedback in a very limited online form is woefully insufficient. Without a comprehensive and shared assessment of the district budget, those choices are impossible to identify.
Our second recommendation is that we re-form a budget task force with diverse leadership similar to the one that was lost in the transition of Superintendents and the turmoil of erratic decisions by the state. The Community Advisory Committee requested all materials, meeting minutes, and analysis from the previous budget committee be publicly released. We ask LRSD to do so, and a similar committee should be reconstituted to establish the facts of the current budget situation and make reasonable forecasts for coming years. It is a mistake to make budget decisions without a long-range view of the overall finances of the district.
We recommend that the state place a moratorium on charter school expansion in Pulaski County for 5 years. It is impossible to create any long-term budget scenario to transition away from the desegregation settlement while the ground beneath the district continues to shift every year. The charter schools operating within LRSD boundaries should be held more accountable to ensure they serve the entire student population and are not serving as institutions of re-segregation. We need stability to make a difficult transition from the situation created by the state’s legacy of segregation and racial discrimination in our schools.
Our fourth recommendation is that decisions on school closure be delayed until there is a clear process for how those decisions will be made and implemented. For example:
Any school closure should include a plan for how those facilities will transition to new purposes that enrich the community. The community impacted by the closure should be in the driver’s seat on those choices.
Closed school facilities should have the opportunity to transition to a community school model that provides wrap-around services to the surrounding community.
Cuts/closures should not be concentrated in specific geographic, racial or socioeconomic communities. The whole LRSD community should share in the cuts necessary to sustain the district for all students.
Students and families impacted by school closure should receive extra attention, especially for low income students, to ensure their educational opportunity is not diminished by the district's transition. LRSD should provide these students enhanced wrap-around services.
Schools are one of the most sacred institutions in our neighborhoods and provide an anchor and identity to some communities. The loss of ownership felt by families when a school closes negatively impacts the mission of public education. District and state leadership must engage in honest and open means of communications about ways to build gainful partnerships using community, state and federal resources that protect our current school system.
Our next recommendation is that the impact of any proposed cuts on the district's ability to recruit and retain the highly trained and skilled educators and support staff that our students need to be successful must be a central consideration. We cannot continue to cut teacher benefits without driving good teachers out of the district. We are concerned these cuts could create a self-perpetuating spiral of diminishing student opportunity, leading to student loss, compounding budget challenges, leading to deeper budget cuts, weakening student opportunity, driving further student loss, etc. Any proposed cut should come with a plan or explanation of how they will avoid this spiral.
In addition, we are concerned about privatizing services. As aspects of schooling become privatized, we lose accountability and democratic control. In addition, those workers, who are often cherished members of school communities, are plunged into uncertainty and likely lower wages. This has the potential to reduce quality, while actually costing more in the long run. Any plan to privatize services needs more study to ensure it will not harm students or drive costs up.
We also recommend the new schools we need in South Little Rock remain a central focus of LRSD and our budget priorities. We are deeply concerned about putting needed improvements in South Little Rock contingent on bond extension at the ballot box. We remain concerned that ballot measures for LRSD will fail while LRSD and the state continue without a legitimate community engagement process. We must create a cohesive plan for public education and help bridge some of the deep divides between different parts of our city.
Our next recommendation is that school construction, renovation and closure decisions be delayed pending a comprehensive facilities plan to ensure the needs of all students in LRSD are met. The previous Superintendent took some positive steps in this direction but that progress has been lost. The district should balance the assignments of administrators, teachers, students as a way to correct the inequity that has resulted in the wide gap between low and high achieving schools. The district must find a way to correct other imbalances that perpetuate some schools and students being more marginalized than others.
Overall our most important point is that LRSD and the state governing our schools continues to fail to create a legitimate, accountable and transparent process for community engagement. This failure elevates distrust, erodes public confidence, and weakens the school district. LRSD attempts at civic engagement over the past few months have been erratic and superficial and will not build the community trust and shared vision needed to move forward. The two separate advisory boards have ill-defined mandates, no authority or accountability, and no systematic process for community engagement.
We hope the situation improves and remain a willing partner in creating the schools that every student in our community deserves.