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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Charter school backer on state Board of Education sees no conflict in voting on nephew's cause

Posted By on Sat, Mar 22, 2014 at 7:28 AM

click to enlarge UNCONFLICTED: Diane Zook says she sees no problem in voting on matters affecting her nephew before the state Board of Education.
  • UNCONFLICTED: Diane Zook says she sees no problem in voting on matters affecting her nephew before the state Board of Education.
Thanks to Cynthia Howell for getting a comment from Diane Zook, a member of the state Board of Education, on her hearing matters pertaining to the proposed Quest charter school despite the fact that  her nephew and Walton lobbyist Gary Newton is a leading organizer of the school. She has no conflict, she says.

Zook will soon get to vote again on the charter school whose establishment his been led by Newton, a paid employee of  organizations financed by the Walton fortune to promote establishment of charter schools, particularly in the Little Rock School District. Newton is a long-time critic of the district.

The school got approval Friday for a change of location from the site for which Zook previously voted  on Rahling Road. As I've reported, the operator, Responsive Education Solutions, already had plans to move when it came before the board for approval of the Rahling site, but made no mention that it was seeking cheaper quarters. Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock School District, in seeking a delay yesterday of the Quest charter school location change, noted that the process had been flawed from the start. Much of the debate was about serving schools in far western Little Rock without nearby alternatives. The debate also considered the original site's location in the Pulaski County School District. The new site is several miles east on a cul de sac off Financial Center Parkway near Shackleford Road It is in the Little Rock School District but also near Little Rock's Henderson Middle Schoool, as well as the existing Lisa Academy charter school, among others.

The education department employees who heard the request for a new location brushed off objections from neighbors that the new location wasn't suitable for the traffic a school approved for up to 490 students would draw. Education Director Tom Kimbrell was similarly unconcerned. The panel voted 6-0 for the change, continuing its rubber-stamping of charter school proposals in the Little Rock School District.

Zook was present for the meeting. Howell asked her about Heller's mention of Zook's undisclosed conflict of interest in voting earlier for the Quest application. Reported the D-G;

Zook, who attended Friday’s charter panel meeting, said she didn’t have a conflict and would have recused herself from the vote if she did.

Newton, who's led the organization of the Quest charter school and hopes to send children there, is the son of Zook's sister. He's reported on social media that she's contributed to the school's organization.

Newton's business before the state Board of Education won't end with Quest. His job as head of Arkansas Learns and Arkansans for Education Reform, a cause of the Waltons and other wealthy businessmen, is to promote charter schools.  He'll advocate others in the months ahead.

No conflict of interest?

Diane Zook may not have a conflict of interest in the sense of a financial tie to the Quest charter school or Gary Newton's private employment. Nor should she be held to strict accountability for the money that flows from like-minded businesses into the treasury that pays the salary of her husband Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas.

The appearance of conflict in the relationship is so clear that it hardly bears comment. Remove charter schools from the equation to see what I mean.

My wife is a judge.  Presume her sister's son and Diane Zook are on opposite sides of a lawsuit over a piece of property. Would Diane Zook say that my wife has no conflict of interest in hearing her case? The state judicial ethics panel would make quicker work of my wife if she did than it will make of Mike Maggio.

But, to quote a politician: "what difference does it make?" The Walton billions have bought the legislature and the education department establishment. Charter schools have been given free rein, without meaningful accountability, particularly in the Little Rock School District. Functionally private schools operated with public money can teach creationism, teach junk history, fail to lift the performance of poor students, fail to tell the truth about siting, fail to deliver on promises of diversity and become enormous nuisances to other property owners. But if they will drain students from the Little Rock School District — particularly in upscale, white parts of town — their proposals will glide past the Education Department review team like corn through a goose. The state Board of Education's hands are effectively tied by legislation removing initial review from the board. And, if there's hangup, Gary Newton can always count on Aunt Diane. In her defense, her bias for charter schools appears so deep as to  transcend her nephew's involvement. Of course that's not exactly a defense of her impartiality.

I reported Zook's relationship weeks ago. She declined to discuss it via e-mail, though offered to meet to talk about it. She hasn't responded to my offer to do so. I similarly reported  last month Responsive Ed's failure to disclose its decision while its application was pending to abandon the Rahling Road site. The factors were first mentioned in the D-G today because Chris Heller brought it up in a public meeting.

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