The Sept. 18 Little Rock school election, falling on the 50th anniversary of the Central High desegregation crisis, enfolds a modern racial drama in the Zone 2 School Board race.
Incumbent Micheal Daugherty, who is seeking a fourth term, has a 12-year record that includes, notably, defense of the dignity of teachers against assaults from people who've never set foot in a public school classroom. Acorn endorsed him for his attention to neighborhood concerns.
Daugherty is black. Hotly contested elections in 2006 produced, for the first time, a four-member black majority on the seven-member board. On virtually every major issue since, the board has split 4-3. Many in the white community are not happy with the majority's peremptory decisions and the appearance that deals have been worked out in private, sometimes in favor of people perceived to be cronies.
It's no defense, but white majorities have been vulnerable to similar criticism over the years. Whites are also now getting a taste of the powerlessness blacks have long endured, though they are noisier about it, or at least better able to get a media megaphone. Had a white board majority just ousted the school superintendent, it wouldn't have prompted the same angry parental threats to abandon the district or dire predictions that Little Rock was on the verge of becoming an urban school disaster. Nor would the daily paper call whites a gang.
So I'd be conflicted if I lived in Zone 2. Daugherty is due credit. But his defeat could change a destructive board dynamic. As it stands, the white board members need not bother to show up.
If not Daugherty, then who? Not Drew Pritt. And probably not Michael Nellums, who's had generally good reviews as principal of an all-boys junior high in the Pulaski County School District. Some contentiousness in his record suggests he isn't ideally suited for the current charged atmosphere.
That leaves Anna Swaim, a public relations professional and the only candidate with kids currently in Little Rock schools. She has a strong record of community involvement from church to racial outreach. She supports collective bargaining with teachers. She opposes merit pay based solely on test scores. She puts careful selection of a new superintendent by a “unanimous vote” at the top of her list of priorities. This broad top priority, as opposed to a parochial zone-based view, worked against her in teachers union and Acorn endorsements, but it recommends her to those of us worried about the entirety of the district.
Swaim, who is white, is the fairly rare person who lives in an integrated neighborhood and sends two children to meaningfully integrated schools. She holds promise to be a sorely needed swing vote. Her zone is roughly two-thirds black. It is an uncommon Little Rock election — particularly one with a black incumbent who's been angrily targeted by some whites — where black voters don't coalesce around a single candidate.
Swaim has organized at the grassroots level and canvassed vigorously. Daugherty, too, has grassroots support, undergirded by neighborhood churches. Barring an enormous chasm in racial turnout (that is, a far greater turnout among the zone's white minority), Swaim can't win without biracial support. Should she achieve that, her election would be a hugely hopeful sign. I also wouldn't fear Daugherty's re-election if the less predictable Daugherty of earlier years re-emerged. That's unlikely, however, if his victory is a product of racially polarized voting. Then, the 4-3 division will continue. And all will pay a price.