Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock's divide

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It is a measure of the Little Rock public school dilemma that an announcement by School Superintendent Baker Kurrus last week drew unhappy responses from both sides of the economic and racial divide that has troubled the district for more than half a century.

Kurrus, designated to lead the district after a split state Board of Education fired the local school board, moved forward aggressively on long-promised facility improvements. He said he'd signed an $11.5 million conditional contract to use a former manufacturing facility on Highway 10 for a middle school and potentially a high school in northwestern Little Rock, perhaps for use by sixth graders as early as next year. He said he'd begin immediately the planning process for a new high school in Southwest Little Rock and he said that project, which could take as long as five years, would go forward no matter if the old Leisure Arts plant proved feasible for a school or not.

What's not to like?

The significant contingent still unhappy about the school district takeover is not at all happy that the first tangible contract in state receivership is aimed at creating a new school in the white, upper-income part of town in a district taken over for academic, not facility, shortcomings. They are also not happy it adopts an idea suggested by Gary Newton, who draws about $150,000 a year, primarily from Walton sources, to work through two nonprofit organizations to tear down the Little Rock School District (he'd dearly love to end Central High School's reputation for excellence), promote charter schools and get schools to serve western Little Rock separate from the underclass.

Newton's aunt, Diane Zook, was among the most aggressive state Board of Education supporters of the Little Rock takeover. Her husband, Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, has been a director of one of the organizations Newton uses to lobby for the Walton agenda, which included an unsuccessful bill in the last legislative session to turn the Little Rock School District over to private charter school management corporations. Walton money has provided about a half-million a year through one organization Newton leads to work on related school matters through the political consulting firms Impact Management and Southern Meridian.

Still, Newton grumped about Kurrus' plan. He didn't seem to like Kurrus' promise for progress in lower income Southwest Little Rock but a less than ironclad commitment to do something NOW for northwestern Little Rock.

Newton wants to provide expeditiously a new middle and high school home for the people now in the successful Roberts Elementary in western Little Rock. Roberts is about 27 percent black, where the district is 66 percent black. About a fourth of its students are poor enough to qualify for school lunch assistance. District-wide, that figure is 63 percent. Henderson, the closest middle school to this part of town, is virtually 100 percent black and low-income. It's a failure, the state and Newton have proclaimed. So the Waltons helped Newton start a majority white charter middle school in ritzy Chenal Valley to provide an alternative and used the low scores at Henderson (and five other of the district's 48 schools) to justify the state takeover of the entire district.

That Henderson's scores are higher than many other schools in the state that have NOT been taken over is a fact likely to be developed if state Rep. John Walker files a threatened lawsuit over racial motivation in a range of activities public and private in the Little Rock School District. This would include the city board's long-ago decision to give much of Little Rock's growth area to the Pulaski County Special School District and the pitched battle to prevent putting all of the county south of the Arkansas River into one school district.

It's Walker's contention that city and state officials and power players continue decades of racially motivated actions. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce orchestrated the campaign — augmented by the Walton billions, along with support from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman and other wealthy "school reform" backers — for takeover. It began in earnest after the Little Rock School Board became majority black. That new board majority was unhappy with Superintendent Dexter Suggs, who Walker believes had privately agreed not to stand in the way of a variety of business community "reform" ideas. The failure of several predominantly black and poor schools to achieve testing sufficiency was no less obvious in the days of white leadership, they note.

Kurrus is trying to balance nearly irreconcilable camps. He's tried to move ahead in the spirit of a concurrent facilities plan developed by the old School Board, knowing that a bond issue will eventually be required and it can't pass if Northwest Little Rock and the business establishment aren't on board. He's stood up against the drain of middle-class students from the Little Rock School District by charter schools. He's said forcefully that Henderson is not a failing school, but a school that receives a preponderance of lagging students who've been failed previously (many beginning at home). He also indicates jobs must be cut to provide money for facility spending and this is likely to hit hard a workforce that, more than many others in town, reflects an affirmative effort to demonstrate diversity.

Walker is also talking about city governance. It was devised to give majority control to the white business community in a city that looks a great deal different — in pigmentation and average bank balance — from those who attend the annual meeting of the chamber of commerce.

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