Columns » Max Brantley

Sis boom BAH!



A Little Rock School Board retreat last Saturday left little to cheer about.

Some big issues were discussed — new schools for western Little Rock and the process to select a new superintendent.

It seems likely that a new school on Cantrell Road will stop at fifth grade. If a demonstrated demand for public schools in that part of town is to be adequately tapped, construction should include middle school grades. The majority of the board seems disinclined. They argue, in part, that the site isn't big enough. But they also demonstrated no urgency to develop an alternative middle school site.

I might wish parents would put kids on a bus for the nearly new Forest Heights middle school or for the proven magnet middle schools downtown. But, mostly, they won't. The net effect is further erosion of public support.

Equally disconcerting was the Board majority's apparent reluctance to hire a consultant to develop a national pool of candidates for school superintendent. A couple of members of the Board's controlling majority seem to favor a cheaper Board search. This will discourage applicants, because their names will be instantly available to the public before any winnowing has occurred. It will favor the current interim superintendent, Linda Watson. She might be the perfect candidate, but it would be better if she emerged through meaningful competition.

Important as the new school and superintendent are, I, perhaps oddly, found myself most troubled by news that civil rights lawyer John Walker had filed a proposal to “settle” the federal lawsuit by former state Sen. Bill Walker's family over his daughter's failure to be chosen for the Central High School cheerleading squad a couple of years ago. The lawsuit was so lacking in meritorious claims that a federal judge dismissed it on a summary judgment. Chances of a win on appeal appear slim. But lawyer Walker has been working out settlements of other complaints since the School Board makeup changed to a majority that he helped elect. There is reason to suspect this might be another one.

Among other things, the settlement could oust the cheerleader sponsor at Central, change the location of cheerleader practice and dictate the judges of tryouts. It also provides for $15,000 in legal fees.

The settlement gives further cause to fear School Board approval of Walker's proposal to “settle” the district's desegregation lawsuit. A judge has ruled that case at an end. Walker has proposed, instead, a far-reaching agreement that would install him, effectively, as the district's co-counsel on desegregation issues and put an employee of his on staff to monitor education programs.

Walker has been an important adversary of the district down through the years — a conscience and a needed advocate for black students and their parents. He should remain in that role.

The cheerleader lawsuit suggests what could happen with Walker formally placed on the administrative side of the table. There'd be no grievance too small for board consideration if it pitted an influential parent against an administrator — here the Central High principal — whom Walker happened to dislike.

The Board shouldn't be mediating cheerleader selection at a single high school, any more than it should oversee basketball or band tryouts. The resolution of this small case might tell us a lot about the immediate future of the Little Rock School District.

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