A Little Rock School Board election this September again could figure in the fate of the school superintendent.
A shift to a black board majority three years ago, thanks to Micheal Daugherty's narrow runoff victory over Anna Swaim, guaranteed the departure of Roy Brooks as superintendent. He was black, but captive to the white business power elite and intent on implementing wealthy businessmen's pet anti-union projects.
Linda Watson, who is black, has now been interim or permanent superintendent for three years and has one year remaining on her contract. Daugherty's effort to give her a one-year extension last week failed 4-3, with two other black board members, Diane Curry and Katherine Mitchell, joining him in the minority. Board President Charles Armstrong, who is black, voted against the extension. Armstrong, thus, is currently the swing vote. But Daugherty's continued board service is also critical to Watson's future if Armstrong can be swayed.
Daugherty says contract extensions are routinely considered in July. But his motion last week had obvious political overtones. There's been an ongoing pro-Watson drive among prominent figures in the black community. In crude translation: A vote against Watson is a vote for the whiteys. Her lobby has included a rogue's gallery of black political backscratchers, including state Rep. Linda Chesterfield, former legislator Bill Walker and Sen. Tracy Steele. Despite a push to turn out black throngs in support of Watson at two recent board meetings, only 10 or so turned out. Few of those on hand, including Chesterfield and Steele and North Little Rock preachers, live in the Little Rock School District.
The lobbying — or something — has had an effect. Diane Curry, now behind Watson, had been among board members who'd indicated dissatisfaction previously. The district has not moved significantly on its academic shortcomings or reduction of central administrative staff. I suspect the overall evaluation from the board bears this out, but board evaluations are not releasable under the Freedom of Information Act. So what explains Curry's change of heart? It's hard to understand, particularly when you consider that the black and white leaders of an important task force on strategic goals — Terence Bolden and Jim Argue — resigned because of Watson's foot-dragging.
Watson also enjoys ardent support from the president of the teachers union, which supported Curry and Daugherty in previous elections. But a grassroots community effort was the larger story in their victories.
John Walker, the civil rights lawyer who was a powerful player in the election three years ago, is backing Daugherty's challenger, Michael Nellums. He finished third behind Daugherty and Swaim three years ago. He's the blunt-speaking principal at Mills High in the Pulaski District, where he's had scrapes with the teachers union and the administration (and come out on top). He led for a time a somewhat controversial all-male middle school in Jacksonville.
The teachers union won't like Nellums, but this election isn't about the future of the union, as the election three years ago was. Also, the union itself is divided. Nor will this election be a racial contest. Both candidates are black. Should the big white vote that turned out for Swaim materialize for Nellums, Daugherty will be hard-pressed to win. Walker, who recently won a House primary for a legislative seat covering most of Daugherty's ward, certainly can peel off some black support for Nellums.
The election shouldn't be about race or patronage (a rap on Watson by her critics) or maintaining the status quo. It should be about kids. But, inevitably, politics will come first.