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Friday, August 29, 2014

Little Rock school board establishes millage campaign steering committee

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2014 at 5:07 PM

click to enlarge TOUGH SELL: Can the school board convince Little Rock voters to approve a millage increase? - BENJI HARDY
  • Benji Hardy
  • TOUGH SELL: Can the school board convince Little Rock voters to approve a millage increase?
Earlier today, Max wrote about the Little Rock School Board’s acceptance of a master plan for facilities improvement in the LR school district. I’m going to add a few notes of my own from the meeting.

As Max said, the cost of overhauling and expanding school buildings as outlined in the plan runs to about half a billion dollars. That will pay for a lot of improvements, including enough new or renovated classroom space to do away with the trailers (“portables” in report-jargon) that have become commonplace expansion classrooms in many schools. It will also require getting the voters of Little Rock to approve a millage increase, which the school board acknowledges will be a steep climb.

Greg Adams, the board president, acknowledged in his remarks that the district “is in a different situation” than when he began his tenure four years ago. Several schools are in academic distress, which raises the specter of a state takeover of the LRSD. The end of desegregation payments from the state is going to blow a hole in the district’s budget in the coming years. But despite the existing budget worries, the facilities study demands action, Adams said, because competition from charters, private schools and school choice puts new pressure on the LRSD to improve its building infrastructure.

“We cannot be a competitor in this marketplace if we don’t do that,” said Adams

To that end, the board took two votes, both unanimous. The first was to accept the master plan, although the plan contains multiple scenarios, not a single course of action. It leaves final decisions up to the school board (more on that in a second). The second vote was to establish a steering committee to plan the inevitable millage campaign. Superintendent Dexter Suggs said the steering committee would "develop the big picture as far as this millage is concerned" and asked for each board member to appoint at least two representatives from their zone to serve on the committee (the exact number and role of those reps is to be determined). At the insistence of board member Dianne Curry, participation of the PTA and the Little Rock Education Association is also built into the steering committee.

As for the plan itself, it calls for facilities upgrades in every building in the district, but the big controversy is about closing schools and opening new ones. Communities in east Little Rock and downtown have been worried about two rumored closures, Carver Magnet Elementary and Rockefeller Elementary. In Southwest, the plan strongly recommends replacing McClellan High School with a new high school campus in another location, and moving Cloverdale Middle School (which is apparently suffering from structural problems) to a remodeled version of a portion of the old McClellan building. It also recommends building a new middle school in West Little Rock.

Parents of Carver students who showed up at the meeting in force to oppose the closure of their school were placated by the board's statements. The master plan does suggest the board "consider the repurposing" of the two schools from elementary to strictly pre-K, in light of declining population on that side of the city. But while Suggs didn't outright oppose the proposition to convert to pre-K — he said the decision is ultimately the board's — he also said that "it's no secret that Carver is one of our higher performing schools...and you do not close one of our higher performing schools."

It's important to realize, said board member Jody Carreiro, that accepting the facility plan doesn't set its recommendations in stone. He compared it to "getting an energy audit done on your home": the plan identifies problems that need to be fixed and suggests a course of action. Actually executing that is a different story; it will require "calling a family meeting to discuss the energy audit," he said. 

That analogy won’t win points for eloquence, but it mostly satisfied Michele Easter, vice president of the PTA at Carver. She said she was mostly satisfied by Suggs remarks and “relieved to hear the clarification” that the master plan is itself still somewhat fluid. Her 10-year-old son currently attends Carver, and she’s had at least one child at the school for a decade now.

Easter, who is white, emphasized that Carver is indeed a model school in terms of both performance and diversity. Its below-capacity enrollment numbers are only the product of racial equity rules governing student transfers, she said, and urged that Carver be allowed to bring more black students into the school.

“There’s a waiting list of about 100 kids to get into Carver,” Easter said, "and they're all minority students."

Support for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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