Columns » Max Brantley

The two cities of Little Rock

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The Little Rock City Board illustrated the capital city's division again last week.

The issue was a symbolic resolution urging Johnny Key, the state education commissioner and de facto school board of the Little Rock School District, to study community impact before following through with the closure of several schools to save money. (Key has already made his decision.)

Directors Joan Adcock and Dean Kumpuris clearly voted no. Director Gene Fortson said he opposed the resolution, too. Director Lance Hines was absent, but he's a longtime critic of the Little Rock School District and wouldn't respond to my question of how he would have voted. Put him down as a no, too.

Kumpuris, Adcock and Fortson are the at-large members of the 11-member board. Others are elected from wards – Hines from a West Little Rock district mostly outside the LRSD. The business elite came up with this governance scheme so that they would control city government through the at-large seats and votes from the generally white, higher-income wards.

Some Little Rock school supporters still live in higher-income neighborhoods, notably including Kathy Webb, lead sponsor of the resolution. She rounded up seven votes, but the pushback from at-large directors had to please Johnny Key.

Key, an advocate for the Walton school agenda, is author of the legislation that forces public school districts to sell vacant buildings to charter schools on unfavorable terms. He fought legislation aimed at temporarily halting charter school expansion in districts like Little Rock, nominally getting state help to correct deficiencies. Key said as much last week to a committee that also heard remarkable testimony from Sam Ledbetter, a Little Rock lawyer who provided the key swing vote as a member of the state Board of Education for state takeover of the Little Rock district.

Ledbetter said he thought the takeover would begin an earnest and speedy effort by the state to improve Little Rock schools (only six of 48 schools were falling short of standards in the first place; now only three.) Instead, the state set about further draining students from successful Little Rock schools into charter schools, some with miserable track records.

Said Ledbetter: "It was a shock to me, it was a shock to my community and it was perceived as a betrayal of trust."

Betrayal applies to the City Board, too, beginning with its decision years ago to allow the rich western growth region to develop outside the school district. Today, we have a majority white West Little Rock and a majority black East Little Rock, with growth at one end and decay at the other. The "haves" (the white male-dominated chamber of commerce clique) control government. They orchestrated the state takeover, and their influence in last week's vote only encourages Key to continue his sacking of the school district.

Key, the white business establishment and the Walton lobbyists will combine again in May to urge voter passage of Little Rock construction-debt refinancing. It's not a tax increase, but it commits taxpayers to a dozen more years of payment of a half-billion or more in tax millage that otherwise would expire. Is it merely a ploy to get local taxpayers to put facilities in good shape for the private businesses that Waltonites see as the future operators of the school district? Johnny Key won't talk about it to the public he serves as school board.

Equity isn't envisioned. Example this week: Charter school advocates rose at the 11th hour to attempt to defeat a bill that said charter schools must accept a return of expelled students on the same timetable that real public schools must follow. Charter schools do not want to accept all comers. They want to cream committed families and better students and hide their business from the public.

Four members of the Little Rock City Board essentially said last week that this is fine by them. If this is to be so, let's at least have some equity on the City Board — ward elections of all city directors. It is a fiction that the at-large directors serve ALL of Little Rock equally.

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