Trouble is brewing in the Little Rock School District
over the Hutchinson administration's
apparent unwillingness to deal with the Little Rock Education Association
and fears that the governor's education commissioner, Johnny Key
, is also bent on enabling more charter school development in the city, including a high school in Northwest Little Rock.
Multiple sources tell me a meeting of teachers will be called this afternoon to discuss developments. Shortly, this could grow into a major issue in races for Little Rock mayor and Arkansas governor.
Check UPDATES below for developments today. Meeting still set at 4:30 p.m. The teachers will vote on a response, but I don't think the situation is at a point where any job action is immediately likely.
The Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the Arkansas Education Association
, has been a bargaining agent for Little Rock teachers for more than a half-century. It has nobly stood for kids against many dark forces, ranging from the segregationists of the 1950s and 60s to incompetent and dishonest superintendents in recent years.
It is one of a very few union agreements with teachers in Arkansas. Evidence mounts that Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who serves as Little Rock "school board" since the district was taken over by the state in 2015, wants them gone.
This would be in keeping with the anti-union posture of both the governor and the powerful lobby of super-wealthy, led by the Walton family, intent on privatizing the Little Rock School District. Teacher resistance was a key element in defeat
of Walton-backed legislation in 2015 that would have allowed a state takeover of the district for parceling out to private operators, a process that is underway more slowly nonetheless. The latest news is that the Key administration is willing to allow a sale of a building next to the district's new middle school on Highway 10 for use as a charter high school. The Walton Family Foundation has ready cash to enable such a deal. It would leach still more teachers out of the district and likely draw heavily from the higher income, predominantly white surrounding neighborhood, to the detriment of the rest of the district. A new high school in that spot long
been an aim of the Walton's $237,000-a-year lobbyist stationed at a Little Rock-based nonprofit.
But a more immediate concern is the teacher contract, which expires Oct. 31. It is a product of a new agreement negotiated with Baker Kurrus,
who spent a year as school superintendent before Key fired him for objecting to charter school proliferation. Kurrus rewrote a cumbersome contract, paring it down to a few pages. He won important concessions from the union on a reduction in pay and contract length and they've seen a retrenchment in jobs as district enrollment has dropped. They supported a tax vote that was controversial. Their thanks for a willingness to sacrifice in the name of the greater good? Not much.
An employee policy manual developed by district employees and the LREA
has gone unsigned by Key since September. This is a sign of deep disrespect by Key, given that it was approved not only by teachers and district administrators but also by the community advisory board that nominally has some influence on district affairs. The state has also thrown up resistance to accepting the routine certification of LREA membership. (It must demonstrate 50 percent membership of certified and non-certified employees, except administrators.) It has done so.
The fear now is that the final step will be Key's refusal to OK a new contract, known as a professional negotiating agreement. As I understand it, little is sought by way of changes in the current agreement and negotiations should be simple The "key" issue is whether the LREA
will continue to be recognized as a representative of teachers.
The teachers are intent on continuing to teach. But a rejection of their efforts could lead to a monumental reaction.
Political fallout will be certain, if that happens, in both the mayor's race and the governor's race.
Kurrus is running for mayor. All four candidates, including Warwick Sabin, Vincent Tolliver and
Frank Scott, say they want the district returned to local control, but the state Board of Education and Key have made no significant movement in that direction. The LREA involvement and influence in the community is long and strong. Will mayoral candidates line up with teachers or the Hutchinson administration?
Don't badmouth LREA members to me, a parent of two graduates of the LRSD. I know the committed men and women of the LREA. I know them as people whose days weren't guided by a time clock, whose pocketbooks opened up for supplies and who embraced children of every color and need in the warmest of ways.
There ARE people who've permanently left the district and not all of the city lies in LRSD. So someone perhaps could make hay in the city race politically by taking an anti-union position. It would not be smart. If Little Rock is to grow as a city, it must have a cohesive true public school district, not a crazy-quilt of private schools operating with public money, as the Waltons desire. The LREA is a bedrock of that. If teachers aren't respected and valued, the schools will reflect the community view
The governor's race is a different matter. I'd hope, based on his statements yesterday about lifting teachers, that Jared Henderson,
the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, would object at a minimum to the Hutchinson administration using the LRSD as a whipping boy for its and the Waltons' anti-union agenda. Beating up on unions is popular in some quarters (not Missouri this week, where voters smashed a right-to-work law). An anti-union teacher group that has been supported on the national level by Walton money has lately been spending heavily on newspaper advertising to lure new members and throw criticism on the Arkansas Education Association and its affiliates. It's perhaps not coincidental that the anti-union teachers
group is seeking to recruit members at a time the governor's office is seeking to decertify the LREA on the ground it doesn't represent enough people in the district.
Much politics are to come. Some fear the Hutchinson administration, through Key, might even WANT to provoke a teacher action in response to a refusal to recognize the LREA or work with teachers on job conditions. Remember that working conditions are about kids' conditions, too. Teachers have won these showdowns in other states recently. Arkansas? We may soon see.
The simple solution is to continue to recognize a group that has gone far more than halfway to accommodate changing conditions in Little Rock.
UPDATE: The LREA again today provided backup information on membership to meet certification standards. The letter notes that it originally submitted information in April, but only recently got challenged (on July 30). Here's the letter
UPDATE II: Kimberly Friedman, a state Education Department spokesman, replied to my request for a response from Key on characterizations of his action, or lack of, on district issues.
Last week the commissioner approved the certified personnel policies as submitted by the district. Seven sections were not adopted due to various concerns and discrepancies. The commissioner directed that LRSD and ADE staff work to address and resubmit these sections for approval.
Upon reviewing the LREA verification of membership submitted earlier this year, LRSD noted that the verification only addressed the percentage of teachers represented by the LREA. Since this was insufficient to meet Paragraph 11 of the PNA, Commissioner Key directed Mr. Poore to request additional verification from LREA regarding the percentage of all employee groups represented by the LREA, as required by Paragraph 11. As of today, he has not received the amended verification.
Please note: Key signed some, but not all, of the policy manual submitted ELEVEN MONTHS ago. He is now raising questions about membership numbers submitted more than THREE months ago. Those numbers were updated today, but they apparently haven't reached Key. Much more is to come obviously.
Here are the documents provided by the state
in response to my FOI request.
The LREA responds:
“What he signed are the rewritten School Board Policies on Certified Personnel drafted by the LRSD attorney while we don’t have a school board. The Personnel Policy Manual for Certified Employees was negotiated and contains all of the day to day items just like the old PNA did.”
to be clear: the teachers insist Key has still not signed the personnel policy manual.