Columns » Max Brantley

As the schools turn

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Still paying attention to the Little Rock School District?

If so, and if you've been confused about recent events, maybe I can help.

The Little Rock School Board has been having executive sessions about an unnamed employee. That employee is Superintendent Linda Watson.

The Board has voted not to extend Watson's contract, which expires June 30.

Watson is popular with the classroom teachers union, which has been shown every consideration during her leadership. Union leader Cathy Koehler has been making some overheated remarks about the Board. The remarks tend to harden those unfriendly to the union. They don't build much warmth among even those friendly to the Little Rock Education Association.

Koehler hopes that by making enough noise that she'll prevent the inevitable — Watson's departure. She can't.

So why won't the School Board talk about the matter in public? It will, probably in early December. The best time to advertise for new school superintendents is in January. Soon, the Board will begin the public process of finding a new leader. There will be local forums. There will be telephone polls. There will be on-line surveys. It's uncertain yet whether an outside consultant will be hired.

I suspect Board President Melanie Fox is holding the series of private meetings to develop a consensus on the process before it goes public. I suspect she'll fail to achieve a 7-0 vote. Members Katherine Mitchell and Dianne Curry seem hardened to stand with Watson to the bitter end.

Won't it be uncomfortable to have Watson on the scene while the process to replace her is underway? Yes. Inevitably, the discussion will turn to shortcomings the board hopes to avoid in a successor. Why won't the School Board buy out Watson's contract? At some point, it would make perfect sense to buy out the remaining seven months and install an interim leader. But Watson and her backers are in no mood to agree to anything. It keeps hope alive of her continuation in the job. It also allows her ample opportunity to travel to professional conferences on the district's credit card in her final months.

You might ask whether it seems a little rude to shove a career Little Rock educator with a good heart out the door. It's no fun, but it's business. New leadership is needed. Preparation is vital. Watson could, for example, even surprise everyone by finding a new job. Better to have a smooth, orderly and comfortable-for-all transition.

Now the future: Might the School District choose an alternative path to new leadership? Might it, for example, seek a waiver from state law requiring the hiring of a certified administrator and reach out to hire a paradigm-breaking leader? Think businessman Baker Kurrus, who wrote the incisive cover story for us about the district's ills following completion of his 12 years on the school board. He's not likely to leave his job as leader of the Rockefeller business interests, but he's the sort of outside-the-box person who might be an interesting option. Or Jim Argue, the former legislator and education activist who co-chaired the school district's strategic planning effort. Or Sen. Joyce Elliott, a teacher, former union leader and a thinker and leader beholden to no one.

These could be exciting times for the Little Rock School District. The teachers will have a seat at the table as the process unfolds. They'd be a lot more productive if they'd stop fighting a lost cause and look to the future.

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