Quote of the Week:
"I will tell you this. I don't see a bright future for the Little Rock School District if it continues to increase as far as its level of poverty. ... Every time [the charter schools] build their enrollment, they will drive up our percentage of poor students, they will drive up our percentage of kids with special needs."
— LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus to the state Board of Education last week, summing up arguments against the ambitious expansions of two Little Rock charter schools, eStem and LISA Academy, at a special public hearing that ran late into the night. As expected, the state board (which also controls the LRSD itself) didn't listen to the man it hired to run the traditional public schools. Despite some dissenting votes, the state board approved both expansions, which together will add around 3,000 new seats to the charter schools in the coming years.
Voters in the dark
A month after the conclusion of a state Supreme Court election season marked by unprecedented spending by out-of-state "dark money" groups, a legislative committee met last week to discuss potential reforms. A proposal to appoint judges (rather than elect them) seems to be going nowhere. But encouragingly, there may be some bipartisan interest in a transparency bill proposed by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) that would require disclosure of donors to shady independent groups whose political ads currently escape state regulation through legal loopholes. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton) pointed out that when outside groups secretly spend big money to buy judicial races, litigants have no idea when a judge might have a conflict of interest. "Unless there is this type of disclosure, that citizen will never have a chance to ask a judge to recuse," he said. Very true; now the legislature needs to act.
Armed and dangerous in Pine Bluff
A member of the Jefferson County Election Commission pulled a derringer out of his pocket after the adjournment of a contentious meeting last week. Republican Stu Soffer said he was acting in self-defense when Ted Davis, a Democrat and former member of the commission, approached him in a hostile manner. When police showed up to take an incident report, Soffer defended himself by saying he never actually pointed the gun at anyone. "I'm 74 years old and I was in fear of my life," he later claimed.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has intervened on the wrong side of yet another lawsuit, this one challenging an order by the Federal Communications Commission to cap the rates charged by companies that operate phone systems in prisons. Such companies often impose absurdly high charges on prisoners' families — up to $14 per minute — that allow correctional facilities to rake in hefty "commissions" on the backs of frequently cash-strapped relatives of inmates. The FCC last fall said prison phone companies can't charge more than 11 cents per minute. In joining a federal suit challenging the FCC cap, the AG explained that Arkansas jails and prisons can't afford the "increased financial strain" of losing such a sweet revenue stream.
Like taking candy from a baby
The U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock last week announced a seventh guilty plea in its investigation of fraud in a state program to feed children from poor families during the summer months (when free school lunches are not available). The program, which is run by the Department of Human Services, has been marred by bribery and graft committed both by DHS employees and local contractors; prosecutors say the total fraud uncovered by the investigation now totals around $10.5 million.
In a setback for Walmart, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear an appeal of a lower court decision on a major labor case that eventually could be worth some $224 million (including interest) in payments to Walmart and Sam's Club workers who weren't paid for work during their lunch breaks. Walmart fought to prevent the workers' claims from being combined into a class-action suit, and said each of the approximately 186,000 workers in question should have had to individually testify. The Supreme Court declined to take up the case, meaning a Pennsylvania state court's ruling on the issue stands.