It's an odd thing to see the political authority of seven public officials evaporate with a single word, but that's what happened in a small room at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) on Jan. 28. When Sam Ledbetter, who chairs the State Board of Education, cast a tiebreaking vote in favor of a motion to take over the Little Rock School District (LRSD), the locally elected LRSD board dissolved into thin air. The state is now in charge of all 48 schools and 25,000 students in the district, including the six schools in academic distress whose low testing performance prompted the move in the first place.
Some sort of aggressive ADE intervention in the district was widely expected, but the LRSD's defenders hoped that a compromise plan from state board member Jay Barth would carry the day. Barth (an Arkansas Times columnist) wanted to give the local board a chance to turn around its foundering schools. His proposal called for a memorandum of understanding that would establish shared governance between the LRSD and ADE while retaining the threat of a full takeover as a "hammer ... over the district." Barth's compromise split the state board as well, 4-4, until Ledbetter voted to reject it.
Ledbetter said after the meeting that he felt full takeover provided a "cleaner" governance structure than "to have another layer of management between the board and the ADE and the local district," as in Barth's plan. Ledbetter explained that his decision was ultimately driven by a lack of faith in the LRSD board, which has clashed with Superintendent Dexter Suggs. True, over half of the members of the LRSD board were elected only in the past 18 months, but in the eyes of its critics, the district's local governing body had developed a culture of dysfunction and mistrust over the years that required wiping the slate clean entirely.
"There's continuity in how boards work," Ledbetter said. "People come and go from [the State Board of Education], but we kind of establish a continuity of values and the ability to work together towards those common goals. We don't always agree, obviously — we had a split vote today — but a board is not made up of one person. It's a collective effort. And if that effort has failed, in this case, it's ultimately — under the Constitution and Lake View — the state's responsibility. We have that responsibility."
Ledbetter was referring to the landmark 2003 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that ushered in a new era of greater state involvement in the affairs of school districts. In Lake View, the court found that the state of Arkansas is required to provide an "adequate and equitable" public education to its children; state government is not allowed to wash its hands of responsibility for failing schools by simply ignoring bad local practices. Ledbetter, who is an attorney, seems to believe that the state board would be derelict in its statutory duty to students if it opted not to shake up the LRSD's sometimes chaotic status quo.
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and other takeover advocates cheered the news as a victory for children, especially the poor and minority students who tend to perform the lowest in the LRSD (and everywhere). Others in Little Rock saw it differently, including the dozens of students, parents, teachers and community leaders who pleaded the case for keeping local control before the state board made its fateful decision. Parent Emily Kearns said that Hall High (one of the six distressed schools) provided effective remedial math intervention to her daughter after she received a subpar education from a charter school.
"The Little Rock School District provided that for my child. She came out of Hall High School with scholarship offers. She's doing well. There are thousands of stories like that. Now, I'm not saying Hall is perfect ... but it has promise," she said. Kearns, like many others, told the state board she has more faith in her local board than in the ADE. "Not only am I a mom, I'm a voter. I vote in each and every election I can get to. I voted for my Little Rock School Board. Frankly — I don't know you people."
No one has been more critical of the takeover than Jim Ross and Joy Springer, the two LRSD board members who were elected last fall. Both longtime educational activists and critics of the district, Springer and Ross saw themselves as anything but agents of the status quo. With the backing of the teachers' union and much of the city's African-American community, they campaigned on addressing inequalities entrenched within the district. They promised especially to hold Superintendent Suggs "accountable" for choices that some saw as detrimental to the LRSD's more disadvantaged students, such as his decision to end a popular but expensive reading intervention program.
To advocates of takeover, the election of Springer and Ross last September seemed to signal an even deeper level of dysfunction within the LRSD and a future in which the superintendent was incapacitated by micromanagement. But to their supporters, Jim Ross and Joy Springer were the face of positive, community-based change: They regularly solicited input from teachers, asked pointed questions of district administrators, and recently persuaded the often fractious LRSD board to unite behind a major facilities improvement plan. (Although, admittedly, the board accomplished this feat a week before the takeover vote, with the state's "hammer" prominently displayed.)
For those who believe that Springer and Ross were indeed beginning to steer the district toward a new era of equity, that their election heralded the arrival of real progressive change in the long-suffering LRSD, the takeover looks tragically misguided at best, and approaches racial discrimination at worst.
"Tonight, five members of the Arkansas state board completed the mission of Orval Faubus," Ross declared after the state board meeting, referencing the former governor who blocked the desegregation of Central High in 1957. Ross (who is white) said that "a white, elite minority of businessmen who couldn't beat us in a campaign ... voted to get rid of democracy and put a dictatorship in place.
"What happened a few months ago is the LRSD board included four African-American reformers and one white guy willing to vote for equity. That's what pissed off the Chamber people. That's the bottom line."
Springer (who is black) agreed: "The decision was based upon race ... . You had a majority [local] board that was committed to take action, and the powers that be decided we were going to be too strong ... this is about us not having the authority to make sure that all children are educated."
Equating state takeover with the Central High crisis is probably going too far: Much has changed in 58 years. Two of the five pro-takeover votes on the state board, Toyce Newton and Kim Davis, are black, and many advocates of takeover have a long history of positive involvement in schools mostly composed of low-income, minority children. Yet it's also true that the loudest public voices supporting takeover these past weeks have tended to be white and affluent, and that many such advocates have their own children installed in private or charter schools rather than the LRSD. Many in Little Rock's black community still remember firsthand the threats of violence hurled against African-American children in Little Rock who dared to ask for the same education as white students in the 1950s and '60s; it should be no surprise they view dissolution of a majority black school board with intense suspicion. It certainly didn't help that on the same day that the state board took over the LRSD, a legislative committee at the state Capitol, only a few hundred yards down the street, defeated a bill that would have finally stopped the official state practice of honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday of January.
Waiting for a plan
At a press conference the morning after the takeover vote, Superintendent Suggs assured the parents of the district that "school buses are running, teachers are in our classrooms teaching ... for our students, today is no different than any other day." But he also said that "change will soon be coming."
"That being said," he continued, "what change will look like at this particular time I am not sure." Suggs said that no immediate staffing modifications were in the works, and the district's contract with the Little Rock Education Association (the local teachers' union) would remain intact. Mostly, he urged cooperation in the wake of the divisive state board decision.
"We can have our 48 hours of venting, but at the end of the day we're going to have to all come together. We cannot afford what has happened over the decades to happen to any more of our kids," he said. He also told the community to "please hold me accountable. Hold the ADE accountable," and to turn out for town halls and community forums, which he said have been too sparsely attended in the past.
The next LRSD town hall is 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, at Chicot Elementary. With no board, and thus no public board meetings, such forums may be the best opportunity for the public to interface with the district in the coming months, or years.
The state board retained Suggs to run the LRSD on an interim basis as part of the same motion by which it took over the district, a decision that some have questioned. In the Pulaski County Special School District, which was taken over by the state in 2011 and is often cited as a relative success story, widely respected veteran Superintendent Jerry Guess was handpicked to turn things around. Can Suggs, who never occupied the chief executive role in a district before landing the post atop the LRSD just 18 months ago, really navigate the treacherous waters ahead?
State board member Mireya Reith (who opposed the motion for takeover) said to her colleagues that she wanted to see an evaluation process for Suggs. "I've heard from so many teachers and families not just concern with the [LRSD] board, but with Superintendent Suggs as well," Reith said. Vicki Saviers, the state board member who made the motion for takeover, said Suggs needed to stay on with the LRSD for the sake of continuity.
It's unclear how long he'll be around, however. Under normal circumstances, the superintendent is hired or fired by the school board, but now that the LRSD board is dissolved, that power falls to one man: Education Commissioner Tony Wood, who runs the ADE.
"In essence, I now serve in the capacity of a [school] board," Wood explained. Although Suggs will run the day-to-day operations of the district, he'll report to the commissioner on a regular basis. Wood has a long history in public education — he ran the schools in Searcy for almost two decades and served as a deputy superintendent in the LRSD itself before that — and stressed that he plans to keep the public involved.
"As we work through this together, we certainly want to be just totally open in all the processes," Wood said. "I want it truly to be a partnership between the state and the Little Rock School District." He said the ADE is a long way from announcing any concrete turnaround plans for the six distressed schools, or even a timeline for making such plans. The first step is to form a citizens' advisory group to work with the district, an instruction the state board included in its motion for takeover. (Such a group will have no decision-making power.)
Many fear that the LRSD's future will be determined by private actors even less accountable to the Little Rock public than state government. Two days after the takeover, district administrators notified teachers that the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation were seeking LRSD participants for a series of focus groups to be performed in conjunction with a company called the Boston Consulting Group. The Waltons have actively promoted charter schools around the nation, and the Boston Consulting Group has consistently recommended that troubled public schools be privatized.
When asked whether the LRSD might turn over its distressed schools to charter management companies (as has happened in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis), Wood told the Times he was unaware of any such plans. "I just have not heard any discussion in that realm," he said. "Our focus has been on working with the district and hopefully in a reasonable amount of time, seeing the district returned to local control.
"I'm really strongly supportive of local control. I think communities should elect representation to govern their districts to make good decisions for kids. It's really troubling when we're not able to continue that model."
With his decades of experience running public schools, Wood sounds credible when he defends traditional democratic governance. And yet, just as Suggs' future is unclear, so is Wood's. The education commissioner, like any state agency head, serves at the pleasure of the governor. Wood was appointed to run the ADE by former Gov. Mike Beebe, and although Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asked the commissioner to remain in his post for now, Wood is widely expected to retire sometime this summer. A spokesperson for the new governor said that "timing hasn't been determined on [Wood's] replacement."
So, add this to the long list of unknowns about the fate of the Little Rock School District: By the time school starts again this fall, ultimate control of decision-making in the LRSD will likely rest in the hands of some as-yet-undetermined person. Whether his or her opinions regarding local governance will echo those held by Tony Wood is an open question.