Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Little Rock School Board prepares for moment of truth before State Board of Education

Posted By on Tue, Jan 20, 2015 at 10:14 PM

click to enlarge LRSD BOARD: At the State Board of Education earlier this month. L to R, in front row, Jim Ross, Joy Springer, C.E. McAdoo, Tara Shephard, Greg Adams and Leslie Fisken. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • LRSD BOARD: At the State Board of Education earlier this month. L to R, in front row, Jim Ross, Joy Springer, C.E. McAdoo, Tara Shephard, Greg Adams and Leslie Fisken.

Tonight the board of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) held a special meeting to discuss its Jan. 28 date with the State Board of Education, at which the State Board will determine its course of action in regards to the district's six academically distressed schools.

Many are pushing for the State Board to take over the entire district, dissolving the LRSD board in the process. Others advocate a less intrusive approach, such as shared state-district management of the six troubled schools. Among them, unsurprisingly, is the majority of the LRSD board.

The board tonight discussed the information that the district will submit to the state tomorrow, as well as its strategy before the state board next week. 

Among the documents the district will submit: A letter from the LRSD board that addresses the issue of the board's alleged dysfunction. Takeover advocates argue that the LRSD board is essentially incapable of governing the district because of its perennial division. The letter — written by board president Greg Adams — is a contrite one. It recognizes that the local board does have its problems and sometimes suffers from a lack of trust, but also notes its accomplishments, including the reconstitution of Forest Heights and Geyer Springs.

"There are rocky patches at times, but we need to have a chance to show we can work through that," Adams said. 

Board member Leslie Fisken, who previously wrote a scathing letter to the State Board complaining of the LRSD board's dysfunction, said she could not support the letter. "I have to say, we’ve had a very good respectful conversation tonight … but this is an aberration," she said. The rest of the board voted to endorse the letter, 6-1. 

Chris Heller, attorney for the LRSD, told the district that he believes the state board does not have the authority to take over the full district. There's a difference under statute between the district being in academic distress and one of its schools being in academic distress, he said.

"In this case, when the board has been fully supportive of turning those schools around, you really can’t say that you have to remove the board to fix these schools, because the board’s perfectly willing to fix these schools," Heller said. "[The district is] doing what the state says is needed."

The biggest surprise of the night, though, came from Superintendent Dexter Suggs when he was asked by Fisken about whether teachers at the six academically distressed schools have been resisting changes the district is trying to make. Suggs has said in the past that not all teachers are "on board" with his initiatives, and that he feels he doesn't have the tools to make sure that changes. Board member C.E. McAdoo said, "we need to deal with that … if principals have identified folks that are not on board … we need to be talking in specifics."

Suggs replied, "There is an aggressive move we can make. We can reconstitute every [academically distressed] school that we have. All six of them."

When asked to define "reconstitute," Suggs said it would entail having "every single person from custodial staff to teachers and principals … re-interview for their positions" among other things. Re-constituting a school might involve replacing most of the student body (as happened when Forest Heights was turned into a STEM Academy) or adding some new students (as has happened with Geyer Springs Elementary) or sticking with most or all of the existing student body.

The idea of the district aggressively moving to reorder its six schools was received warmly by Jim Ross, who's often been critical of Suggs' approach. He said that such bold leadership is why people were excited about hiring Suggs to begin with in 2013. Joy Springer, who has also questioned Suggs' decisions in the past, agreed. "I would suggest going even further," she said, proposing that the district "place principals and teachers who have proven achievement records in those schools." Tara Shephard said she was glad to hear the board discussing the topic, although she was "kind of shocked" it was happening now. 

The superintendent cooperating with the board to establish a major initiative to fully overhaul the six academically distressed schools, including a close look at the staffing mix in those buildings? Now that sounds like reform.

I'll update this post tomorrow with more details.

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