News » Cover Stories

Baker Kurrus wants to be mayor of a town with stronger neighborhoods, closer connections

A song for you.

by

2 comments
CANDIDATE BAKER KURRUS: Says the city should focus on improving neighborhood blight.
  • CANDIDATE BAKER KURRUS: Says the city should focus on improving neighborhood blight.

This is the first in a series of profiles of the candidates for Little Rock mayor.

Baker Kurrus has already been a mayor of sorts, overseeing schools as agencies; administrators, principals and teachers as staff; and children as his constituency. As the appointed superintendent for the Little Rock School District from May 2015 to June 2016, he made a lot of friends among public school supporters unhappy with the state Board of Education's takeover of the LRSD. The board, many influenced by the charter-school supporting Walton Family Foundation, disbanded the LRSD School Board in January 2015* for the slimmest of reasons, that six of its 44 schools were in "academic distress," producing anger among patrons helpless to change things.

Kurrus, 64, who'd served on the school board for 12 years (1998-2010) and as an appointed adviser on district finances in 2015, was an active superintendent, trimming the budget by millions in the face of an upcoming loss of $37 million in state desegregation settlement payments. He visited every school. He started a weekly online newsletter where he openly wrote about both problems and great teaching he saw. He even sang Leon Russell's "A Song for You" at Central High School's graduation. He began to win over people who originally saw him as a business type unsuited to run the district.

He also promoted the acquisition of property in Northwest Little Rock for a middle school as a way, he said, to compete with the drain of more well-to-do kids to private and charter schools.

Kurrus was, in fact, too candid when it came to charter schools and their impact on the LRSD. When he presented data to the state Board of Education that showed charters were harming education in the LRSD, Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key gave him the boot.

But it was his "chutzpah," she said, that earned him the support of Little Rock City Director Capi Peck. While saying Little Rock was lucky to have a stellar lineup of mayoral candidates this year, she's openly backing Kurrus. (Kurrus has four opponents in the race: Warwick Sabin, 42; Vincent Tolliver, 51; Frank Scott, 34; and Glen Schwarz, 64.)

"Bottom line, I think he is the most qualified to bring the city together in light of what he did with the Little Rock School District," Peck said. She said she didn't know Kurrus before he led the district, but his work there put her "firmly on his team." She described him as "compassionate and intelligent."

"One thing that impresses me is his ability to take a look at a budget and get in there, and financially he understands so much because of his background," Peck said. "He won't be afraid to shake things up, make cuts." As superintendent, she said, Kurrus asked for a key to every building in the district so he could get a feel for what was going on. "He's that kind of CEO."

'MY NEIGHBOR IS MY NEIGHBOR NO MATTER WHERE MY NEIGHBOR LIVES': That's Baker Kurrus' belief, and the reason he wants more connection in Little Rock. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • 'MY NEIGHBOR IS MY NEIGHBOR NO MATTER WHERE MY NEIGHBOR LIVES': That's Baker Kurrus' belief, and the reason he wants more connection in Little Rock.

Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and former executive and West Little Rock residential developer, nevertheless comes across as a guy who, if he weren't running for mayor, would be happy trying to grow organic soybeans in the drained minnow ponds on his farm (though that venture almost got him killed earlier this year).

He's a talker. He can swing from talking about city budgets and what he sees as money poorly spent in one breath to singing Solomon Burke's "None of Us Are Free," a song he and the Asbury Prison Band perform as a prison ministry, in another.

You might expect Kurrus to be a one-note candidate, given his name recognition as a superintendent David to the Goliath of wealthy charter-school backers. But that's not the case. His pitch is restoring Little Rock's blighted neighborhoods, to recreate a missing sense of place that he says is creating a "hollow center" to Little Rock. That comes first if other problems are to be solved: "I want to impact education. I want to impact infrastructure and public safety." Fixing neighborhoods, he said, "transcends every one of those single issues."

Kurrus, a cyclist whose been making dawn runs through Central Little Rock neighborhoods, says that by his count there are 8,000 vacant lots in the city and an untold number of boarded-up or disintegrating houses, and that has to change. "What can we do to make housing more attractive and neighborhoods more attractive and inviting to people who have choices?" is what leaders should be asking, he said. "People who have choices," he explains, are people who might choose to live in a particular area, even help bring back an area with new construction or rehabilitating an area if they could get help from the city.

But today, Kurrus said, if you go to the city seeking a building permit that might help a neighborhood, the city, "instead of asking you if they can get you a cup of coffee, because building in that area is essential, they're going to tell you ... you have to dedicate right-of-way, fix the sidewalks, and the curb will need repairs," issuing what he calls "nastygrams." That sort of response, he said, gives people "the sense that we're not here to help you, we're here to impose on you." Yes, people have to fix curbs and sidewalks and make improvements, but why not look at the positives, thank them for their interest and get to the details later?

Waving lists of city projects funded with sales taxes approved in 2011, Kurrus said the city is not spending its money in a way that addresses weed lots, vacant houses and abandonment of neighborhoods.

"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars where we don't address the fundamental issue. Right now we're going to pay to improve curbs and gutters at Pine and Cedar [streets]. Curbs and sidewalks. That's nice. But what does that really do?" Why not, he wondered, spend that money in ways that people want: Making neighborhoods attractive, adding amenities such as parks and bike paths, things that bring people together. "We need to somehow reconnect, come closer."

Kurrus said he wasn't blaming code enforcement officers for an off-putting response to development. If that's their response, Kurrus said, it's from a "lack of vision and leadership" at the top. "The purpose of every city employee should be to facilitate the attractiveness and livability of neighborhoods. ... We have to go to these people and say, 'How can I help you?' "

THE FORMER SUPERINTENDENT: Kurrus, speaking to Sen. Joyce Elliott at a press conference on the LRSD, says schools benefit from healthy neighborhoods. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • THE FORMER SUPERINTENDENT: Kurrus, speaking to Sen. Joyce Elliott at a press conference on the LRSD, says schools benefit from healthy neighborhoods.

"That 12th Street thing," he said, referring to the police substation at 12th and Pine streets. "I don't want to sound overly critical, but it looks like a fortress. They built commercial space there, but commercial follows rooftops. ... What you should be thinking about is how do we get people to live in the area. You just have to shift your total mindset."

Part of that shift, he said, is away from considering city improvements a "zero sum game," so that when Ward X gets something, it doesn't mean Ward Y doesn't. "Everybody argues about their piece of the pie. [The question should be] how do you make the pie bigger? And part of that is through growth in our real estate tax base." ***

"Baker gets it." That's what Paul Dodds, a developer who lives near Central High School who has often expressed frustration with city regulations that allow houses to fall down but penalize him for using plastic instead of metal on the porch of a house he's rescued, said about Kurrus. He showed Kurrus around the neighborhood recently, at the candidate's request, and complained to him and city directors about a 24-hour store that sells beer at 12th and Woodrow.

If the city would encourage reinvestment in a neighborhood, it could stop folks moving to Cabot and Conway and "refill Little Rock," Dodds said. Dodds said he would be glad to meet with all the candidates for mayor to talk about neighborhood repair.

Given the fact that Kurrus has been involved in real estate development — such as Woodlands Edge in West Little Rock —is his interest in helping developers? Would it be fair to characterize him the real estate candidate? No, Kurrus said, "it's really unfair.

"It's not about making money in real estate, it's about changing people's lives. It's the human interest that compelled me. It's not about bricks and mortar, it's about the people, whether they feel happy, satisfied, safe, that informs every other decision they make. That drives outcomes in schools, it drives crime rates."

It's a stand that has convinced Dodds, who was not particularly happy with Kurrus' acceptance of state Department of Transportation's plan to widen Interstate 30 through downtown Little Rock from six to 10 lanes, to throw his support to Kurrus. "Baker's passion is for the nerdy nuts and bolts of the mayor's job itself — budget line items, morale among school bus drivers, the how and why of how city government is not working as it should."

***

Whoever wins the mayoral race will be the head of a city with an unusual hybrid leadership: A "strong" mayor elected by voters and a city manager. Does it work? "I don't think we know yet," Kurrus said, given that the city's had the same mayor, Mark Stodola, and the same city manager, Bruce Moore, since adopting the hybrid form of government. But in his reading of the ordinance that created today's city government, "the mayor can play a more prominent role," Kurrus said: The city manager is the chief administrative officer, but he is to perform other duties "at the direction of the mayor."

"The mayor is the chief executive officer. I know what that means: I've been a CEO. They don't point their finger at anybody else, deflect questions ... . When I was superintendent, I didn't say, 'That's someone else's responsibility.' "

One thing the mayor should be doing, Kurrus believes, is working to support the city's major institutions, like the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and UA Little Rock, neither of which is getting the attention from the legislature that it needs. "The mayor ought to be pounding on the legislature, saying, 'What in the world are y'all doing? You're choking health education' — we're No. 49 in health. I don't want a tax cut. I want adequately funded higher ed, medical education." He said plans to cut more taxes — recently announced by Governor Hutchinson — and thus more services was putting the state in a "race to the bottom."

***

The boost that got him in the race, Kurrus said, was attending a fundraiser for AR Kids Read, a literacy initiative, where "they were talking about all these kids that couldn't read." Schools can't teach kids if the kids don't come from healthy neighborhoods, he said: "I would say neighborhoods drive school performance rather than the other way around." He pointed to Stephens Elementary on West 18th Street, built when he was on the school board. The board had promised the school would be built, and it was. But, he said, "it didn't make a tinker's damn" in terms of uplifting the surrounding area.

A speaker at the fundraiser made a speech about community and valuing children. "I thought, if I could help, why wouldn't I? That's what pushed me over."

That and a near-drowning on his farm, when he was nearly sucked underwater by a drainpipe on his minnow pond. His son rescued him by slicing off his waders with a knife. "Dude," Kurrus said he thought to himself, "you're not invincible."

Whether he will win the mayor's race could depend, for one thing, on how strong the flow of public opinion is against interstate widening, which has been Sabin's issue and appeal to the foes of the concrete swath. Or the strength of Scott's argument that as a 34-year-old he offers a youthful vision for change. Or the support for Vincent Tolliver's "People's Campaign." Or, maybe, the pull of Libertarian support for perennial candidate Glen Schwarz.

cover_story1-4-73920e741acb391d.jpg

Kurrus will argue that fighting I-30 is like "howling at the moon," given Mayor Stodola's crucial vote in favor of it, and that instead the mayor should position himself as an "effective advocate" for the city as "critical negotiations" unfold during its construction. As for the youthful vision thing, Kurrus said "to think I have no vision because I'm 64 years old is a complete insult to everybody." He, too, sees himself as a people's mayor, saying, "We've got to say, 'My neighbor is my neighbor no matter where my neighbor lives. I may not be their keeper, but I'm their brother and sister.' "

*A previous version mistakenly said the state had taken over the LRSD in 1998.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment
 

Add a comment