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Teachers take an interest

Labor relations a key in races for School Board.

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ZONE 3: Fox (left) v. Roddy will be the expensive race.
  • ZONE 3: Fox (left) v. Roddy will be the expensive race.

The Little Rock School Board and administrators and the Classroom Teachers Association may have reached a temporary truce with the contract they agreed to a few weeks ago, but the rift between the two sides continues to dominate discussions about the district’s future, and it’s a major issue in at least one school board race.

Two candidates are vying to replace Bryan Day in Zone 3, which includes the Heights, Hillcrest, and the Hall High area: Carol Roddy, a UAMS professor in the areas of bioterrorism and hazards preparedness, and Melanie Fox, co-owner of J&M Foods. Roddy has been endorsed by the teachers’ union, while Fox — a member of the Little Rock Public Education Foundation board of directors and a friend of Day — has the support of Day and Lisa Black, the executive director of the PEF.

Fox has also raised more than five times as much money as Roddy (more than $20,000 compared with Roddy’s $4,000) and has hired a professional political consultant. But expect the teachers’ union to step up the level of their involvement in this election on behalf of Roddy and the other two candidates they’ve endorsed — Dianne Curry, who’s challenging incumbent Tom Brock in zone 7, and Charles Armstrong, who’s running against zone 6 incumbent Tony Rose.

“They’re more active, their PAC has become pretty active,” Brock said. “They’re supporting everybody that’s not on the board. I really think they’re trying to do their best to unseat the current board members, which is their right. If they feel that strongly about it, more power to them.”

Katherine Wright Knight, president of the CTA, said the CTA does feel that strongly about it.

“For the survival of our school district, the board has to change,” she said.

“Teachers are getting out the vote if they live in zones 3, 6 and 7,” she said. “They’re making sure in their households that the word is clear, and in their churches.” But, Knight said, union officials had a “long visit” with schools’ union representatives about what is and is not permissible under campaign laws and regulations: No using school e-mail, no signs inside school buildings.

Still, she said she doesn’t want the union’s endorsement of candidates who are challenging incumbents to be a reflection of the CTA’s troubled relationship with the school board.

“I hope it’s not a fight that will seem like it’s another split between the CTA and the board,” she said. “You endorse a candidate. It’s been going on forever.”

As for the candidates in Zone 3, the highest profile race on account of expected expenditures, there are distinct differences in how they view the role of the teachers’ union — although it’s not as simple as one being pro-union and one being anti.

Roddy, who has a son at Central High School, said she decided to run for school board after a contentious board meeting last spring.

“I’m not a peacekeeper — I think debate and discussion are good — but I want to bring the classroom teachers back to where their voice is heard,” she said. “I’m not sure right now they have been.”

Roddy said she doesn’t like the idea that wealthy business people have been able to work through the Public Education Foundation to start programs in Little Rock schools, like the merit pay programs at several elementary schools paid for by Democrat-Gazette owner Walter Hussman. Hussman originally wanted to fund the programs anonymously through the PEF, and the school board did not vote on the programs before they were implemented.

“We’ve got a very powerful group of business leaders in Little Rock that basically want to run our schools, and that’s problematic,” she said. “I don’t believe they fairly represent the majority of our community.”

Fox, who has a child at Forest Park Elementary, said she wasn’t yet involved with the education foundation when it first worked with Hussman to set up the merit pay programs. And she said she thinks the school board should have voted on the programs at the beginning.

“I think it should have come before the board,” she said. “… It’s really kind of hard when people are giving you money to turn it away, but we need to have a long-term goal. I’m worried about setting a precedent here.”

Fox said despite her connection with the Public Education Foundation, she’s not the chosen candidate of the business interests.

“That’s idle gossip — I don’t know Walter Hussman,” she said. “I’m not anti-union, I’m not anti-teachers. I think if teachers are happy they’ll be more productive, which, bottom line, helps my kids.”

Fox said she’s not against the idea of merit pay, but thinks teachers need to be involved in designing a merit pay system, and there needs to be more research into what has and hasn’t worked for other districts.

Roddy said she’d prefer a comprehensive overhaul of teacher compensation, and reward teachers for attaining National Board certification rather than for their students’ standardized test scores.

Just what affect the CTA endorsement will have on the race isn’t clear, Day said.

“In my neighborhood [Hillcrest] we’re all a bunch of liberals and lean a little toward organized labor,” he said. “But on the other side of Cantrell in the Heights, there’s probably a lot of people that believe that unions aren’t really necessary anymore. A lot of people might blame the teachers’ organizations for some of the problems we have in general. I think because of the combative nature of the relationship [between the board and the CTA] right now, I’m not sure if the endorsement’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

The zone 6 race has two-term incumbent Tony Rose, an administrator in the math department at UALR, running against Charles Armstrong, assistant director for the Arkansas Plant Board’s pesticides division. Rose was one of two board members who voted last spring against a proposal to start a pilot merit pay program district-wide — a proposal the CTA fought against — but the CTA endorsed Armstrong.

Rose said he understands why the union didn’t endorse him — his temper was one that flared at the May board meeting — but said he thinks they’ve made a mistake in working to unseat him.

“I’m their best friend on the board, but they don’t see it that way,” he said. “I’ve been the most active participant in board/union negotiations and have always stood up for them.”

Zone 7 drew three challengers to incumbent Tom Brock, who was appointed six months ago to replace board member Sue Strickland, who moved out of the area.

Brock may not ever live down his contribution to the May board meeting, when he said the teachers in attendance were being horse’s rear ends.

The union endorsed Dianne Curry, an administrative assistant at the state Department of Education who ran against Strickland three years ago. The other two candidates are Fredrick Love, child services coordinator at the Arkansas Foodbank Network, and A.G. “Jitter” Krippendorf, a printing pressman who also ran against Strickland in 2003.

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