Columns » Max Brantley

LR schools: what now?

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A majority of the Little Rock School Board voted last week to buy up the roughly two years remaining on Superintendent Roy Brooks’ contract at a cost of about $500,000.

The buyout would have been half as costly had the School Board not pushed through a contract extension before the last School Board election. Everyone knew pro-Brooks members could be ousted. Indeed, two were beaten and that shifted the balance of power 4-3 against Brooks.

That’s old business now. Every wasted dollar hurts. But a district with a $300 million budget can absorb the expense. Huge legal bills would have come with a prolonged firing process and its likely court-contested conclusion. There should be savings opportunities, too, in the eventual departure of the Brooks administrative team.

What’s new business is the future. It is full of uncertainty, beginning with the choice for interim leadership. But other big questions lie ahead.

Will the School Board majority work toward consensus on any issues? It’s a given that some differences will continue. Will they conduct business in the open? Will they prove the unfairness of labeling the four-member black majority by their race, as the daily newspaper has persisted in doing? Or will they justify racial labels by race-based governance?

I’m not overly confident. Procedurally, the majority has worked awkwardly — at times in conflict with rules and maybe law — and generally disdained broad public input. Roy Brooks operated in the same fashion, but that is no defense. The board majority can also argue that they’ve been driven to racially divisive rhetoric by equally combative rhetoric on the other side of the Brooks debate. But, again, two wrongs don’t make a right.

And what of those board members currently in the minority and the substantial business people and admirably cohesive parent groups at a handful of the city’s most successful schools who backed Brooks? They’ve predicted disaster would follow Brooks’ dismissal. Will they work to be sure that this prediction comes true? Or will they work, as they have for years, for a diverse school district with many centers of excellence among obvious great needs? They’d do well to remember that the Little Rock School District was making progress before Roy Brooks arrived; it need not be different after.

It boils down to these simple questions. The majority has achieved a hard-fought goal. Can it resist spoils-taking? The minority has been dealt a bitter setback. Can it accept it without recriminations?

I worry. There are, I know, people who favored Brooks’ dismissal who’d be pleased, or at least unconcerned, to see more white parents flee the district. They’d like to see the destruction of Central High and a number of other schools as beacons of what the district can achieve. They care little about the need to push ahead with school construction in the western part of the city. These issues, I think, could be the first great test of the young majority’s willingness to serve the entire school district.

Meanwhile, the majority would do well to remember that there will be other school elections. What voters give, they can take away. There are ways to build alliances and ways to create enemies. Roy Brooks’ fatal strategic decision that the district’s destiny could be controlled by a relative handful of people — without regard to teachers, neighborhoods and all parents — should be a teaching moment for both sides.

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