The outcry against school closures is not new, and current events are reminiscent of what occurred in 2003. In the aftermath of the Lake View ruling, the General Assembly debated school consolidation as a component of establishing an efficient system of education in Arkansas. Those of us who were serving in the legislature at that time are not likely to forget the outcry from rural residents of Arkansas who feared what would happen if they lost their school. What supporters of Franklin, Wilson, and others are saying now is very similar to what was being said then. There were “Save our School” rallies at the Capitol and around the state. There were concerns about the loss of community, especially in parts of the state that were experiencing loss of population and declining enrollment. Parents were concerned that attending a different school would be detrimental to their students. “Local control” was the topic of many conversations. In the end Act 60 passed, requiring districts with enrollment below 350 students to consolidate. Those decisions that impacted the entire state were not easy then, and the decisions about LRSD are no easier today.
Some ask why the state, with no input from an elected board, should even be making critical fiscal decisions when the premise of state takeover was based on academic distress, not fiscal distress. The reality is that the LRSD academic issues have been known and discussed for decades. In the mid-1990s the Little Rock Alliance for Our Public Schools published “Little Rock’s Public Schools: A Plan for Success”. This document presented data and recommendations regarding a number of concerns, including declining enrollment, competitive pressure from private schools and area public schools, closing underutilized schools, budgetary needs, and academic achievement gaps. In the years following No Child Left Behind, persistent low performance was still reflected in several schools. For example, in 2011 Hall High School was in School Improvement Year 7, and Henderson Middle School was in School Improvement Year 8. The 2010 LRSD Strategic Plan outlined steps to improve academic performance in the struggling schools. In the years to follow, however, some LRSD schools remained in Priority Status under ESEA Flexibility, and eventually six schools were designated as being in Academic Distress. Last year we able to remove that designation from Baseline Elementary. Today we celebrate the removal of that designation from Fair and McClellan. Yes, progress is being made, and more work is necessary to improve the achievement at Cloverdale, Henderson, and Hall. It must be remembered that at the time of the Academic Distress designation, LRSD feeder patterns were such that some LRSD students could progress from Kindergarten through graduation in “Academic Distress” schools. This chronic lack of academic improvement, exhibited over a number of years and under multiple accountability systems, and of which the Little Rock community was well aware as evidenced by the referenced public documents, is what led the State Board to intervene. At that point, the State Board directed the commissioner to assume the authority of the LRSD Board of Directors, and this authority and responsibility extends to all aspects of district operation. That is why I as commissioner must be involved in making these decisions. As focused as I must be on working with the LRSD and ADE teams to address the academic issues, I am equally responsible for the budgetary component of the district’s operations. And these budgetary decisions must be made now.