Columns » Max Brantley

Swaying school votes

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Little Rock had a momentous school election last week. Long-term incumbent Micheal Daugherty was defeated in the race for Zone 2 on the Little Rock School Board by Michael Nellums, a principal at Mills High in the neighboring Pulaski County School District.

The zone is majority black. Both Nellums and Daugherty are black. Racial politics still played a role.

Daugherty was supported by the Little Rock classroom teachers union. He also enjoyed prominent support from a who's who of black people. They included former state Sen. Bill Walker (now a state agency head); Bishop Steven Arnold, head of one of the city's largest black congregation; state Rep. Linda Chesterfield, who'll move to the state Senate next year; Justice of the Peace Mary Louise Williams, and state Sen. Tracy Steele.

Nellums, who finished a poor third in this race in 2007, didn't have an equivalent slate of backers, but his included civil rights attorney John W. Walker, who supported Daugherty in 2007 against Anna Swaim, who happens to be white.

What changed? School Superintendent Linda Watson is now in the final year of a three-year contract as superintendent. She was chosen to lead the district after a new 4-3 black Board majority ousted Superintendent Roy Brooks. The 4-3 majority hasn't held for Watson. Daugherty tried twice, including as a lame duck after his defeat, to extend Watson's contract. But Board member Charles Armstrong, who is black, has joined the three white board members in opposing the extension. Watson hasn't exerted the leadership necessary to budget for performance, shift spending from administration to classroom and move aggressively on a strategic plan to target the district's lagging students. Walker came to believe Watson placed too much priority on looking after friends and associates on the district staff and not enough on classroom results.

So what happened in the election? Apathy is what happened. Nellums won 371-271, a whopping 642 votes in a zone where 2,705 voted in the runoff between Swaim and Daugherty in 2007. Daugherty won by 193 votes then. The racial divide energized voters in 2007 and it somewhat was evident again this year.

Nellums won the part of the zone west of University Avenue, where white zone voters are concentrated, 245-84. Daugherty carried the poorer, blacker part of the zone east of University, but the margin was much closer than in 2007. Daugherty, for example, carried Greater Christ Temple Church by 213-31 in 2007, but only by 52-22 this year.

John Walker, who recently won a primary election for state representative, appears to have been more influential than Daugherty's all-stars. The precinct that includes majority black University Park, John Walker's home turf, went for Nellums 96-41. It had voted for Daugherty 254-142 in 2007.

These results should give other politicians some food for thought about the value of passing around street money to presumed influential people to get out the vote. Here, the big names provided little influence and a measly 271 votes.

Perhaps the voters sufficiently motivated to vote were also sufficiently informed about the essence of the race — Nellums' potential for change.

I don't mean to presume that Nellums has pre-judged Watson's fitness. It is possible too that Greg Adams, unopposed to succeed School Board member Baker Kurrus, won't pick up Kurrus' call at his final board meeting to quickly begin a search for Watson's successor.

But I'd say it's still safe to bet that change is in the offing and that the majority of voters — at least those who could be stirred to vote — won't be disappointed.

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