Columns » Max Brantley

For the kids

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Early voting is underway for the special election May 9 on extension of 12.4 property tax mills dedicated to debt of the Little Rock School District.

It's not a vote to increase the tax rate. But it IS a vote for more taxes — 14 more years of the tax, which currently produces more than $42 million a year. Since property tax assessments have risen 3 percent a year for the last 10 years, you could be looking down the line at authorizing $63 million or more a year for those 14 years, almost $900 million. The tax vote also perpetuates a silent tax for operations. As taxes rise, rather than devoting money to a building fund, the district can draw on the surplus, currently $31 million a year, to operate.

A sophisticated campaign financed by business establishment leaders is pushing the tax increase. Odds favor approval. It's just refinancing a mortgage, they say. (The bankruptcy courts are full of people who know that people facing declining income probably shouldn't refinance their credit cards and mortgages.)

The pro-tax campaign boils down to an implicit insult: If you are against the tax, you are against kids. Baker Kurrus, a former Little Rock School Board member, a man most responsible for new elementary and middle schools in Northwest Little Rock and a successful interim superintendent, has written a fact-heavy, dispassionate explanation of why he'll vote Tuesday AGAINST the school tax. Don't tell me Kurrus hates kids.

He avoids the discord about the state takeover and removal of the majority black school board, a sore point with the predominant black voting bloc in the district.

Kurrus argues that there's been no comprehensive planning for the future of the Little Rock district and the other public school districts in Pulaski County, likely to be reshaped in years ahead. It is not the time, he writes, to pour $300 million into debt (counting interest charges).

Nice buildings, desirable as they are, don't equal good education, Kurrus also says. The Little Rock district has done well, but is being decimated by the continuing proliferation of charter schools encouraged by state Education Commissioner Johnny Key. Those charters take achieving Little Rock students disproportionately. Left behind, disproportionately, are economically disadvantaged students.

The district is already pinched financially. Between the available millage overage of at least $8 million a year, budget cuts and state facility support, Kurrus had a plan to build the new Southwest high school and to do critical building improvements as able until enrollment stabilized.

Accountable leadership is an issue. Commissioner Key, the ultimate district boss under state control, won't talk to the public or press. But he supports continued charter school growth. He fought for legislation that helped charter schools and hurt the Little Rock School District in the last legislative session. He's given no hint of flexibility on a return of local control. He killed a state Board of Education proposal to provide at least some hope.

With more charters, Kurrus says, Little Rock enrollment will decline (along with state dollars) and the district will bear a disproportionate share of students with special needs, students in poverty and students who don't speak English as a first language.

Michael Poore, named superintendent after Key fired Kurrus for opposing charter school expansion, thinks new facilities will bring students back. Forty years of flight tell us that buildings aren't the root of Little Rock student loss. Despite crumbling walls, Central High was a magnet to diverse students thanks to its curriculum and faculty. A brand-new junior high failed to attract new students (until converted to a magnet) because of a predominantly poor and black student attendance zone.

Little Rock is about to lose $37 million in state desegregation aid and $10 million to $12 million more a year in losses to charter school expansions already approved, with another national charter operator lurking in the wings. In addition to welcoming all charters, the state allows poorly performing charters to continue. "These are the simple facts, but none of this has been discussed in public," Kurrus says.

I credit people on both sides with being "for kids," even if the tax campaigners won't extend similar courtesy to opponents. But, as Kurrus illustrates, a "yes" vote on $600 million to $900 million in new taxes might lead to a fiscally distressed school district disproportionately attended by at-risk students. It's a blueprint for districtwide privatization of the sort pushed in the past by Key's friends at the Walton Family Foundation. Experience in New Orleans and Memphis tells us this would not be a solution "for all the kids."

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