LONG ROAD TO LOCAL CONTROL: (from left) Education Commissioner Johnny Key, board Chair Jay Barth and board member Charisse Dean listen to a community member speak at the Dec. 20 meeting of the state board (file photo).
This post has been updated.
The state Board of Education was told today that the state takeover of the Little Rock School District doesn't have to end until a year later than previously thought — and even then, the state might not have to return full local control to an elected school board at that time. The news followed some expression of frustration on the part of state board members about the status of the district.
Lori Freno, an attorney for the state Education Department, confirmed the five-year limit on state takeover ends for the LRSD in January 2020. But, she added, "if there were a new election called, it wouldn't have to be called and conducted [such that] a new board was in place by January."
That means election of a local school board might not occur until November 2020, which would place it on the ballot with a presidential election. Freno's comments begin around the 1:04:00 mark in the video below (also available here).
The district was taken over on January 28, 2015 for test score deficiencies in six of 48 schools. State law says that local control had to resume after five years. At a meeting in September, a different department lawyer, Courtney Salas-Ford, said in response to a question from board chair Jay Barth that an election would need to be held in November 2019 or May 2020. (Here's video from that meeting, with Salas-Ford's comments beginning around 3:30:00.)
At Friday's meeting, Barth told Freno that the state board was previously told the five-year clock ends on January 28, 2020, "which would have required elections this year. That's exactly the way it was portrayed to the board a few months ago, and it’s never been corrected," he said.
But Freno said the Education Department has always interpreted the five-year statutory limit to mean that the process to return local control must begin by that date, not that a locally elected board must actually resume control at that time. "Once the five years rolls around, then decisions have to be made," she said. The timeline for returning local control in districts previously taken over by the state, such as the Helena-West Helena School District and the Pulaski County Special School District, have followed that interpretation of the law, Freno said.
However, it's also not clear how the timeline for state takeover might be affected by a new education accountability law passed in 2017. Though the five-year deadline is still mentioned under the rewritten law, its language could allow for continued state involvement in a district after that deadline. The state could allow a local school board to be elected but not return full governance powers immediately, Freno said.
"Under the new law, there are many more steps that could be taken. For example, even after the five years there could be a limited authority board in place," she said.
Freno's remarks to the state board on Friday came after board member Susan Chambers said it was "increasingly clear we need a plan for Little Rock" and the board needed to do "something different than what we've been doing" regarding the district. Chambers referenced the highly contentious Dec. 20 state board meeting at which the panel voted to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a labor law providing for due process for teachers, in the LRSD. Grassroots organizing produced a significant amount of local support for the district, for a return of local control and opposition to attempted management of the district by Board member Diane Zook.
Chambers told Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who heads the state department, that the board "needs to be informed on a spectrum of options. ... There is a clock that’s running in the background, and I want to know what our responsibilities are relative to that."
"If we are lacking clarity, the community probably is, too," Chambers added. Board members Charisse Dean and Fitz Hill echoed Chambers calls for more clarity.
Key told the board he was frustrated by talk of engaging the community because he said the community hadn't shown up at LRSD Community Advisory Board meetings. This is the same Community Advisory Board that recently voted to accept most of LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore's sweeping blueprint for changing the district BEFORE taking public comment. It's also a board that has negligible power.
By coincidence, around the time the board was discussing the LRSD, Governor Hutchinson was asked at a legislative preview session hosted by the Associated Press when the state needed to return to LRSD to local control. He answered"
"Well, we need to return local control whenever the school children are getting a quality education. That’s the responsibility of the state, and that’s what caused the state board of Education to bring under state control the Little Rock School District, because there were six schools in academic distress and not performing … our responsibility is to get them up.
"We do not want state control over any school district one day longer than is necessary to achieve that academic performance. That’s what we’re measuring. There is a timeline right now under current law, which is five years. There may be some exceptions to it, but it’s generally a five-year timeframe, and so that is January of next year. It’s about a year away. So I think great strides have been made in terms of facilities and plans, teacher training, but there’s more to be done. We’re hopeful it will have success and we can return that as soon as possible."
Advocates for the LRSD will note Hutchinson's "there may be some exceptions" to the five-year limit for state control. The governor was then asked, do you think the law should be changed to change that timeline?
"Five years sounds like a long time, but if you look at — by the time a school district gets in such distress that the state has to take it over, how do you turn a poor performing academic school around? How quickly can it happen? Five years goes by very, very quickly. If it is in financial distress, that’s easier. But I do think that the five-year limit is appropriate. There may — again, I’d have to look at it as to whether there’s any exceptions to it or any calls that it can be continued, but five years should be enough time to set the foundation for change, the foundation for renewed academic success — should have that in place. So I don’t have any quibbling with the current law."