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Little Rock School District faces takeover

State board will decide Jan. 28.



Things are moving quickly. In October, administrators from the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and its local board were issued a warning by the State Board of Education: The fact that six of the district's schools are in "academic distress" placed it in danger of takeover from the state authorities. Vicki Saviers, who heads the board subcommittee on academic distress, said at the time, "We have a crisis in the Little Rock School District. It's not new, but I think those of us on this board decided we just couldn't watch it anymore." She then recommended the district appear before the board again in January to review its progress.

The January meeting happened two weeks ago, and based on the board's comments at that time, imminent state intervention of some kind seems likely. The board heard from LRSD Superintendent Dexter Suggs, officials from the state's Education Department and a number of others. Business leaders, such as Entergy Arkansas's Hugh McDonald and former LRSD board member John Riggs, urged state takeover of the district, while civil rights attorney John Walker threatened a lawsuit if a takeover moved forward. The date to watch now is Jan. 28, when the board is expected to make a decision.

A full takeover of Arkansas's largest school district would be an extraordinary development. Traditionally, a school district is an autonomous local political entity, its day-to-day governance the duty of its elected board and superintendent. But the legislature has also created a means for the state board to interject itself into districts plagued by poor student performance, budget problems or both. It's a potent weapon that's used infrequently.

Sam Ledbetter, a lawyer and former state legislator, is chair of the state board. "The options are set forth in the statute on academic distress, which basically gives the state board broad authority for dealing with districts or schools in academic distress," he told the Arkansas Times.

The board could take the six academically distressed schools away from the LRSD and run them under the auspices of the state, or it could establish an agreement with the district to share management of those schools. Alternatively, it might seize control of the entire district and dissolve the locally elected school board; this is what happened in the Pulaski County Special School District in 2011, which remains under state control even now. It could appoint a new superintendent or it could retain Suggs. It could even redraw the geography of the LRSD, perhaps annexing a portion of the surrounding Pulaski County district into the Little Rock district. Or, it could do nothing for the time being.

Takeover advocates have the advantage of a clearer narrative than their opponents. In their telling, what ails the LRSD is complacency, bad teachers and a dysfunctional local board that distrusts and micromanages Suggs rather than supporting the superintendent's initiatives. Advocates of takeover seem to have coalesced around the idea that Suggs remains the right guy to turn around the district's troubled schools. In a Jan. 11 editorial, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a takeover proponent, urged the state board to allow Suggs "a freer hand — so he can clear the classrooms of those teachers who are just sleepwalking to retirement." Suggs' comments before the state board have reinforced this narrative: "There is a sense of status quo throughout our district," he said earlier this month.

Walker and others who oppose a takeover note that over half of the district's board was elected only in the past 18 months. Two members, Joy Springer and Jim Ross, took their seats last October; it may be premature to call their governance dysfunctional. Also, not everyone watching the LRSD believes in Suggs' leadership; what some call micromanaging the superintendent, others call holding him accountable. Though he's also held his job for just one year, Suggs has gained plenty of critics who say he's been less than forthright with the LRSD board and with teachers on a variety of issues.

At the January meeting of the state board, Walker pointed out that the LRSD board is majority black, while the voices calling for state intervention are mostly white and affluent and do not send their children to public schools. Although the district has been troubled by low performance for decades, Walker said, there was no talk of removing local control when the LRSD board was run by whites. "You have no evidentiary basis before you for taking over the district board and eliminating the will of black voters," he told the state board.

The one fact nobody disputes is that a large number of students are being left behind in the LRSD, especially poor and minority children. Whether a state takeover can actually improve the fortunes of those kids depends on three questions: First, exactly why are some Little Rock schools performing so poorly? Second, is the local board truly too dysfunctional to govern? And third, if the state takes over the district, can it really effect a major turnaround?

The numbers

"Academic distress" is a damning categorization. It indicates that more than half of the students in a school have scored below "proficient" on standardized math and literacy tests over a three-year period. Out of the 26 schools statewide in academic distress, six are in the LRSD: one elementary (Baseline), two middle schools (Henderson and Cloverdale) and three high schools (Hall, McClellan and J.A. Fair). At the January board meeting, takeover advocate John Riggs pointed out that other schools in the district are also subpar. "The facts speak for themselves," he said. "Sixty-seven percent of our elementaries perform in the last quartile [in the state]." (Report cards for the LRSD as a whole and individual schools can be found here.)

Yet such facts are dependent on context. For one thing, not every school in the LRSD is doing poorly; for example, Central and Parkview are among the best high schools in Arkansas. Less well known is that even low-performing Fair and McClellan were acknowledged by the University of Arkansas's Office of Education Policy in November for having relatively good scores on Algebra and Geometry End-of-Course exams. The numbers weren't stellar in themselves, but for a high-poverty school they "beat the odds," in the language of the UA report.

Education research everywhere shows that schools with high concentrations of children from poorer households usually score lower on standardized tests. Although Little Rock has many affluent families, their children tend to not go to public school: 75 percent of LRSD students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 77 percent are black or Latino. The district also has a growing number of students who don't speak English at home, which brings its own challenges.

At the January meeting, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) offered this perspective to the state board: "There is what I consider a myopic view that schools can be sustainably turned into world-class entities without addressing social and economic conditions in our neighborhoods, myopic to the point that most well-meaning folks don't even discuss that schools and neighborhoods are connected. And that's not an excuse. It's just reality." (As a legislator, Elliott is not a decision-maker on the question of takeover.)

So how can the school system rectify the unequal playing field created by poverty? One answer is to allocate more money and staff to schools serving poorer kids — but the LRSD has had a great deal of extra cash at its disposal in the past and too few results to show for it. The district received hundreds of millions of dollars from the state over the last 30 years because of a desegregation court order (the suit was recently settled), and several of the academically distressed schools have also received direct federal "school improvement" grants.

Though he's sympathetic to the fact that the LRSD faces special challenges because of its size and poverty rate, state board chair Ledbetter said that Little Rock has had "resources galore" compared to many other places in the state. "The amount of money to spend per pupil far exceeds most districts," he said. "With the resources and human capital in Central Arkansas you just feel like the district could have done a much better job in raising student achievement."

Ledbetter cited the Marvell-Elaine district in the Delta as an example of a high-poverty, majority-minority public school system making big gains with less money than Little Rock, although he noted they're partnering with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. "They don't have many human resources in that area, but they're doing great things. It's exciting to see a school like that."

'Hostile, degrading and unconscionable'

The weekend before the state board convened in January, Vicki Saviers received an unusual letter from LRSD board member Leslie Fisken, who represents a portion of Little Rock that includes the prosperous Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods. Fisken, who often finds herself on the opposite side of her colleagues on the local board, said the body had become "dysfunctional," especially in its relationship with Suggs.

"There is only a shred of an indication that the seven board members are willing to work together with the superintendent for the best interest of the students," she wrote. "The language and attitude used when speaking with others, including the superintendent, is, at a minimum, unprofessional, and I would consider such behavior hostile, degrading and unconscionable." While she stopped short of calling for takeover explicitly, it was implied: Fisken said that "significant changes must occur in order to ensure the educational opportunities for the students of the LRSD." She praised Suggs, whom she called "an aspiring, honest and driven leader that our community ... cannot afford to let leave the LRSD."

Board members Jim Ross and Joy Springer both wrote letters of their own to Saviers contradicting Fisken's accusations of dysfunction point by point. "Suggs is a capable leader for our district," Ross wrote, "but as he has said on numerous occasions, the work of one man or woman will not fix the district. Our community must work together. As the elected representatives of the people, the board has the responsibility to make sure effective personnel, programs, and policies are in place.

"It is [the district board's] job to question the superintendent when we believe he has left the mission of our district or has stepped outside the bounds of the law or board policy. It is also our duty to support him when he is following the mission of the district and within the bounds of the law. The current board is doing both of these things very well."

As of Jan. 21, the LRSD board submitted documents to the state board arguing against takeover, including a letter (endorsed by every member except Fisken) that states a desire to work together to improve the situation in the district.

Ledbetter acknowledged that accountability from a local board is necessary, but he also told the Times that a district must also be behind the leadership of the superintendent.

"You've got to have a board that supports the leader. The board can't be going in eight different directions and second-guessing everything," he said. "At some point you chart a course, and your leader executes that course ... and the LRSD has struggled in getting to that point."

"I have no question that everybody on that board is sincere and is trying to do what they see as best for the district," he continued. "There's also no question that, given the attention on the district in the last six months or so, there's a pretty significant shift in the attitude. There's more of a focus on how can we make this better, to find common ground and build consensus. ... But the question is, is it too little too late, and can it be sustained?"

Charting a course

Advocates of takeover stress the urgency of action. "We've got to do something bold ... if we don't do something, the same problem will exist in another 20 years," Riggs said at the January meeting. But what, exactly, can the state do differently that the LRSD has failed to do?

The state is already intimately involved in the six academically distressed LRSD schools. A team of Education Department staff works closely with their principals in an advisory and monitoring capacity, recommending changes and watching performance metrics. At the January meeting, Dr. Richard Wilde, the leader of the state's team, gave a report to the state board that painted a somewhat different picture than the one drawn by Suggs and takeover advocates such as Riggs. According to Wilde, the problem among LRSD administrators is not that they cynically accept the status quo, but that they're overwhelmed by trying to make too many changes too quickly in an atmosphere of perpetual low-level crisis.

"The district is trying to do too many things at once to fix itself," he said. "They do not have enough time in the week to truly bring the staff along ... they're moving along too many fronts and can't logistically support all the time needed to do those things." Despite his sympathy toward the district's plight, Wilde also called for the state to intervene in some capacity, to "focus the turnaround."

At the January meeting, Sen. Elliott questioned whether the state can run the district any more effectively. "I don't see how the Department of Education is positioned either with personnel or by a record of success in other district takeovers to add LRSD to its responsibility. Just as the LRSD's track record matters, so should the department's record," she said.

Despite the complexity of running a large district, said Ledbetter, there's also "a simple formula for successful schools ... leadership at the top that has a vision and a board that supports that. You put the resources where they're most needed, and that is in the classroom." 

So how would things change if the state were to dissolve local control? "You have the ability to make decisions and not have to be challenged," he said. "You're able to be more nimble."

As chair, Ledbetter says he'll cast a vote on Jan. 28 only if the state board is split on what it wants to do with the Little Rock School District. He didn't indicate whether he believes the state board will initiate a full takeover or take a less drastic step. But he, like so many others, feels that action of some sort is urgent.

"Everybody says, 'Well, why now? Why didn't you do this sooner? Why don't you wait until later?' That's all a bunch of noise. When the history of all this is written, they're probably not going to say we acted too quickly to intervene."

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