Columns » Max Brantley

While I was away...

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I'm just back from two weeks out of the country. A couple of catchups:

LITTLE ROCK SCHOOL LEADERSHIP: State Education Board Chair Sam Ledbetter took the lead in working out a deal with Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Gov. Asa Hutchinson to install Little Rock lawyer and former Little Rock School Board member Baker Kurrus as superintendent of the district, now under state control.

I remain sympathetic to those unhappy about the loss of democratic control of the school district. I believe that business establishment antipathy toward the majority black school board was a key factor and yet another indication of the state's long history of racially motivated actions against the interests of Little Rock schools.

But the state Board of Education is now firmly in the hands of a Republican administration without sympathy for big-D or little-d democratic and racial politics in Pulaski County. This outcome is far better than their preferred alternative.

Kurrus was in sympathetic attendance at the pivotal community meeting that helped a successful drive to defeat legislation supported by Key and Hutchinson to turn the Little Rock School District into a laboratory for private operation. He and I have talked for years about the essential dishonesty of much of the charter school movement, which often "succeeds" by skimming better students from conventional public schools. He knows, for example, that any plan to "save" Baseline Elementary that merely entailed moving in new students was no salvation for the students moved out. He believes in strong principals held accountable for their teachers. He speaks knowledgeably about places where the district can save money.

His own kids went to Little Rock schools. His wife is a PTA stalwart. He made enemies in pushing for new schools in growing West Little Rock, but those schools were needed. He speaks today of something that once was unspeakable by the power structure: The Little Rock district was screwed when city leaders let Chenal Valley annex into the city without joining the Little Rock School District. It is now a district without a community, its boundaries frozen to a decaying core of a much larger city.

Kurrus brings great intellect, great energy and a belief in a conventional school district. Nothing less than the city's future depends on preserving a reliable, productive city school district, as opposed to Balkanized private fiefdoms with some lucky winners and many losers. He's already demonstrated he can work with the teachers union, its own future on the line. Many people I consider friends won't be persuaded by my encouraging words, but they shouldn't lose sight of how bad the alternative would have been. They also can take heart that a direct result of their organized unhappiness was the removal of Dexter Suggs as superintendent.

THE ARKANSAS SUPREME COURT: The Arkansas Supreme Court abruptly and, so far without explanation, fired Stephanie Harris as its communications counsel. She won't be replaced. There's little doubt that the poisonous division on the court was at least a factor in the change. A statement Harris issued on behalf of Chief Justice Jim Hannah was even cited in a recent court decision taking exception to what Hannah had said in that statement about which justices should hear the same-sex marriage case appeal.

Politics aside, the court needed this position, just as the U.S. Supreme Court has a press office. The clerk's office isn't a sufficient fallback. Sometimes a spokesman can help reporters with procedural questions that justices can't or won't answer. Harris was important in arranging media access to important judicial events, including the West Memphis Three case, which drew international attention. For whatever reason, the court doesn't get its weekly decisions online in a timely fashion. Harris always distributed the list on release at 9 a.m. each Thursday and provided copies of important decisions when requested. For her good efforts, she got rough treatment. I fear there's more — with much more at stake than one person's job — where that came from.

Four female justices — Courtney Goodson, Karen Baker, Jo Hart and Rhonda Wood — apparently have seized control of court leadership, including administrative matters once viewed as the purview of the chief justice. This seems to have produced the ouster of Harris. It so happens Harris founded Women Lead Arkansas, a nonpartisan group that encourages women to run for office.

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