Little Rock city officials have been running a stealth campaign — targeted mail and phone calls — for their effort to increase the city sales tax by 200 percent.
But this electoral secrecy is nothing compared with the lack of attention given the Little Rock school election, which comes Sept. 20.
If you look at the ballot, you'd think there's nothing to vote on. No millage increase is proposed. The 46.4-mill tax continues regardless. Zone 5 board member Jody Carreiro has no opposition. In the only other open race, Zone 1, only Norma J. Johnson filed for the ballot.
But ... Loretta Hendrix filed as a write-in candidate. Write-ins typically pose little threat, but in an election with little turnout it might not take many votes to win. In 2008 and 2005, fewer than 100 people cast ballots in Little Rock school elections when no contested races appeared on the ballot. In 2002, when Katherine Mitchell was elected by a narrow margin, two names appeared on the ballot and there was strong neighborhood interest. Still, only 716 people voted.
So there's cause to watch this race and — if you live in Ward 1 — to vote. Johnson brims with energy in talking about schools. Hendrix has less to say. She said she ran because Katherine Mitchell decided not to seek re-election and she appreciated Mitchell's representation. Johnson declines to look back at Mitchell and the leadership debates in which Mitchell was a key player, most recently in the minority on a superintendent change. "I'm not running AGAINST anybody," Johnson says. "I'm running for the position."
A state Highway and Transportation Department permits analyst, Johnson, 52, holds a master's degree in adult education and is studying for a certificate in mediation and conflict resolution. Her son is a senior at Central High School, where she was a graduate.
Why is she running? "I can't understand how kids can be in school 12 years and can't read. I can't understand why we're failing a number of children."
She said school districts need to be more open to change and different approaches — "to take risks." She said she has an open mind on charter schools, but she also said traditional public schools should receive no less consideration.
Hendrix, 62, daughter of City Director Erma Hendrix, told the Education Advocate, a local publication, that she wasn't ready to talk about issues because she hadn't been keeping up with them. She said she filed as a write-in only after it became apparent Katherine Mitchell wouldn't run again. She works in real estate and has a master's degree in teaching people with learning disabilities. She has no children.
"My one great issue is to make sure children get an equitable education and are well prepared at end of school year," she said.
Both candidates say that, so far, they've primarily paid for small campaign expenditures themselves. Hendrix said she's knocking on 75 doors a day. She distributes a flyer that says, "You write in, we win!" and lists her education at Hall High and UAPB.
Both candidates have been interviewed by the Little Rock Education Association, the union for district employees. The LREA supported Katherine Mitchell. But I'll be surprised if the LREA doesn't endorse Johnson, who seems more directly engaged in the district and aims to get other parents equally engaged.
But if few people vote in a ward that has traditionally turned out few voters and has lost population besides, the outcome is anyone's guess.