Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Live blogging the LRSD takeover meeting

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 10:40 AM

click to enlarge THE BOARD: Today, the State Board of Education faces a historic decision on Little Rock schools. L to R, facing camera, Kim Davis, Jay Barth, Diane Zook, Education Commissioner Tony Wood. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • THE BOARD: Today, the State Board of Education faces a historic decision on Little Rock schools. L to R, facing camera, Kim Davis, Jay Barth, Diane Zook, Education Commissioner Tony Wood.

UPDATE at 3:30:
The motion for takeover carries, with Chairman Sam Ledbetter casting the decisive vote. The state of Arkansas is taking over the Little Rock School District. Jay Barth made a secondary motion to create a committee to take a look at district boundaries in Pulaski County, which passes unanimously. 

UPDATE at 3:15: There are dueling motions on the table before the State Board of Education. The first is a compromise proposal from Jay Barth to craft an MOU between the state and the LRSD to share control of the six academically distressed schools and maintain the threat of full takeover going forward (see below for details). It was voted on and did not pass, 4-4.

Vicki Saviers' competing motion is to dissolve the local board, take over the district and retain Dexter Suggs as superintendent.

See below for an earlier discussion among board members, and below that for public comments from this morning, which were mostly against takeover.


2:10 p.m. — Board members Mireya Reith, Joe Black and Alice Mahoney say they're for giving the Little Rock School Board another chance. Reith spoke the longest, saying she was encouraged by recent developments within the district and wary of dissolving local control. "We actually live in a country where our vote isn’t corrupted and does matter," she said. "Anything we could do to usurp that gives me great concern." She also questioned the capacity of the state in running the district, and noted that the new governor will likely appoint a new Education Commissioner in the coming months. "We are in a moment of transition here in the Department of Education," she said.

2:20 Vicki Saviers, who chairs the Academic Distress Subcommittee, called for bold action from her fellow board members. "We’ve seen Band-Aids and small steps in recent months, but only after … the district was faced with serious sanctions," she said. "All of the folks we’ve seen today have pledged to do better going forward … but this [poor school performance] has been documented for 13 years. ... Here we are in 2015. We have a long history of academic distress in those schools. We have no bold plan. And the superintendent doesn’t have confidence in the board to implement the current plan." She also said she was worried about the fiscal situation in the district when desegregation funding runs out in coming years and said she had little confidence the local board could make difficult budget decisions in the future. It's hard to run high-poverty schools, she acknowledged, "yet it has and it can be done, and schools with large concentrations of poverty are succeeding in the state of Arkansas ... When the district has a lack of will for bold changes … the state has the obligation to step in."

2:30 — Toyce Newton sounds conflicted, but leaning towards takeover. She said she's unsure about the capacity of both the state and the LRSD to make change. Yet she mostly spoke about the urgency of failing multiple generations of kids with subpar schools. "Their path is to destruction," she said. "It’s a never ending stream of young people into the justice system, into unemployment and underemployment …We have got to stop this madness. This is criminal. … Some people say, well, if you do this to Little Rock, what about the hundreds of other schools? What about setting a precedent? Well, you've got to set it somewhere. ... These families and these children are helpless, unless we do the right thing. We just can’t sit idly by and do nothing."

2:40 — Diane Zook spoke in favor of takeover, as expected. Jay Barth spoke of charting a "middle path" solution, one "that maximizes the future of the kids in this district and minimizes the threat to public education." He said he's discarded the idea of the state taking over only the six academically distressed schools in the LRSD and forming its own district; it's not logistically feasible. So, he says, he's proposing "a new middle path — one that does not call for immediate state takeover but leaves that wide open as an option" if the district in the months ahead does not show progress. Kim Davis, the newest state board appointee, said that neither the LRSD board nor the city's business community had the right to "cop out" of further work to improve schools, no matter the decision today. He seems to advocate a compromise solution: "It can't just be one way or the other."

3:00 — Barth makes a motion, which Mahoney seconds, for his compromise proposal. It calls for a development of an MOU between the state and LRSD in the next two weeks, with a particular focus on schools in academic distress. The MOU would include: 
-Two year achievement goals for each academically distressed school.
-Ongoing oversight from ADE about curriculum and staffing decisions in those schools. “The real deficit in these schools is human capital issues," Barth explained. "We have to give greater flexibility in terms of movement of staff."
-Ongoing consulting on fiscal issues. “We all know demise of state funding is going to put any state funding at risk”
-Identification of an academic distress monitor to serve as a liason to the Education Commissioner and state board.
-A process and timeline for creating a formal body of parents, business and philanthropic organizations for a civic advisory committee for academically distressed schools. 
If the MOU is not successfully developed, state takeover of LRSD shall be commence, including removal of the LR School Board and superintendent. That would most likely happen at the Feb. 12 meeting of State Board, said Barth, although it could be amended. There'd also be review of the district's progress as an action item of the state board on a quarterly basis, with the ongoing possibility of state takeover. "To be blunt, it is crucial that the hammer of the state be over the district," Barth said.

3:15 — Zook will not support the motion, and Saviers sounds like she's not on board, either. "My brain wants to love on this, because I’m all about people working together," she said, "but my heart of hearts says this would be more of the same." Ledbetter calls for a vote. It's 4-4, split right down the middle. That means it does not carry (unless chairman Sam Ledbetter votes to break the tie.)

Saviers calls for a second motion to dissolve the local board, take over the district and retain Dexter Suggs as superintendent. 

click to enlarge DECISION TIME: Superintendent Dexter Suggs testifies before the State Board of Education. In the front row - BRIAN CHILSON
  • DECISION TIME: Superintendent Dexter Suggs testifies before the State Board of Education. In the front row


I'm here at the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) watching the proceedings. Big crowd, as expected; the small auditorium the State Board of Education uses for its meetings is filled to capacity and ADE has set up several auxiliary viewing rooms down the hall. 

State board chair Sam Ledbetter said ADE will be allowed to present information, then the Little Rock School District will have 20 minutes to make its case, followed by public comments. Individuals will be allowed to speak for three minutes and may not cede their time to others. Ledbetter asked commenters to refrain from repetition, and said he reserved the right to place a limit on overall time. He said he's got about fifty names on his list right now

Jeremy Lassiter, attorney for ADE, said the Department had no further comment besides the information it's previously submitted to the state board. He did reiterate that his stance that the state board has full authority to take a "full spectrum of actions" from state takeover to doing nothing.

Chris Heller, counsel for LRSD, disagreed. He says the state board's statutory authority to take over districts is different from its authority to take over individual schools, and pointed out again that the district as a whole has not been declared in academic distress. He listed other school districts with a higher proportion of their schools in academic distress: in Forrest City, 3 out of 5 schools and in Pine Bluff, 3 out of 10. In Little Rock, 6 out of 48 schools are in academic distress. Heller said, "I haven’t seen any evidence that any different plan or better plan would be implemented if state was to take over the district."

"Finally, and most significantly, there’s no Department of Education recommendation to you to take over these schools," Heller continued, which is true. ADE staff have recommended that the state board intervene in the district in some way, but haven't recommended a full takeover. (One way or the other, the state is going to get more involved in the LRSD — the choice is between a takeover and some form of shared governance compromise solution.)

Greg Adams said the current LRSD board was making progress. He asked the state to hold it accountable, but not for things that have happened in the past or things that have yet to happen, citing speculation from many that the current atmosphere of collaboration on the board will evaporate once the threat of takeover recedes (should the state not pull the trigger).

"If we fail … and preserve the status quo, then come and take us over for the sake of the kids. But I don’t think we’re going to fail," Adams said.

Rep. John Walker condemned the calls from takeover from business leaders who have no children in the LRSD; it's the departure of such families from the district that have brought about its woes in the first place, Walker indicated. "What has happened is the people proposing the takeover are the ones that created the flight," he said. "Accountability is the objective of the present board, and that’s what frightens those [calling for takeover]"

Sen. Joyce Elliott cautioned the state board against simple comparisons between the LRSD and other Arkansas districts. "Little Rock is the only district in this state that can be called truly urban," she said, and has "the same assets, the same liabilities ... as other big urban districts." She said full takeover wasn't called for: "If I break my whole arm, you don’t put my whole body in a cast."

Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R - Alma), a school teacher herself, spoke of the need to build "a flagship for education in our state" in Little Rock, but also said  "we need accountability ... on what we actually do when we take over a school. Where’s the data that supports the systems we put into place, systems we take out? Where’s the data to support [whether] this has worked or this has not worked?" This underscores the complex political fault lines on school issues. Douglas is staunchly conservative, but I don't think she's necessarily aligned with the Chamber on this issue.

Lots of LRSD students from Parkview and Central are urging the state board to not take over, some of whom are the same kids who spoke at the Arkansas Community Organizations forum on Monday. Andres Moreno asked the board a question many have asked. Should a takeover proceed, what happens next? "What can [ADE] do to help all these distressed schools? What can you do, exactly, to help the poor kids, the Latino kids, the black kids?" Hannah Burdett, a Parkview senior, said the local LRSD board should stay in place and asked the state board "not to dissolve the only body that we as students have some sort of say in."

12:00 — Several people pointed out after Monday's forum that the students who spoke came from the LRSD's two star high schools, Parkview and Central, rather than the three which are in academic distress. This morning, a few students from Hall have also spoken against takeover. One, who said she just came to the U.S. five years ago, spoke of the impact of the Hall Newcomer's Center, which provides targeted English as a Second Language (ESL) assistance. "If you ask me if the ESL newcomers center works, I would say yes. If you ask me if Hall works, I would say yes," she said. "I don't want our family to be taken away from us ... ESL students already suffer from breaking apart of families."

Michel Leidermann, who runs the Arkansas Times'  sister publication El Latino, told the board that it "must ensure the Newcomer's Center is maintained" regardless of the takeover decision.

12:20 – No one so far today has spoken explicitly in favor of takeover – not even Marla Johnson, the Aristotle CEO who started a Facebook group that many interpreted as recommending takeover. She told the state board today simply that she wanted bold action of some kind. “You know a lot more about what action needs to be taken than I do … and I actually trust you [to make the right decision],” she said.

However, Johnson mentioned the 2010 strategic plan cited by many as an example of how the district tends to resist calls for change. It had “lots of community voices and support,” she said, “but those plans were never implemented…and nobody has been able to tell me why they weren’t implemented.

1:00 — After a break for lunch, we're back with more students from Hall. A Hall High grad who's now at UCA said, "All I hear is what a failure Hall is. … why am I not hearing about the thousands of success stories from Hall? Why am I only hearing the negative?" During his seventh grade year, he said, his father was deported. "I considered dropping out of school to help provide food for my family." He began to get into trouble in tenth grade, and recalls a teacher, his Avid instructor, intervening. "She would fight for me simply because I was one of her babies," he recalled. "These are the stories you’re not hearing about Hall."

1:20 — Even John Riggs, the heavy machinery company owner who has been calling for takeover since last summer, has toned down his message somewhat. He said he was glad the community is "having a conversation" and expressed hope that it could continue. However, he still supports a takeover. "When 46 percent of our kids are scoring in the lowest 11 percent, then something is wrong ... I think it’s time to put us in the time out box. We need stable leadership. The last thing we need is another round of superintendents."

1:40 — Two remarkable, thoughtful pieces of testimony from two African American mothers in the district. The first — whose name I missed — has a disabled son who she says has been neglected by the LRSD. “People have counted us out, and tried to move me out of the district, because I am very vocal ... They say it’s hard to get parents involved. The way I have been treated … I wouldn’t get involved either." Although she herself has only a high school education, she said, she'll fight for her son. "There’s people in here more proper than I am, people with more education ... I’m one of those low-income [people] that live in a low-income neighborhood …but I demand respect," she said. Yet, she continued, "I do not approve of a state takeover"; she said she doesn't have faith the state can run things any better. She said she's been disregarded "by people on the state level as well as these people at the Little Rock School District." She told the state board, "y'all need to be working together with these people" to "hold them accountable."

The other parent, Emily Kerns, said she has three children in the LRSD and a daughter who just graduated from Hall and is now at UCA. Before Hall, the girl was at a charter school, which proved to be a failure. "I was all for experimental education – until my child started to suffer," said Kerns. "When she went into the LRSD, she needed remedial math intervention. 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. It makes me sad every time I drive up to it. It looks bad. But it has promise ... And 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," she told the state board.

"Your meetings are during the day. I live in 72204. The parents there work hard; they work two or three jobs. ... And after I finish my testimony, I'm going to get in the car and pick up my daughter from Jefferson [Elementary]. That’s what it means to keep the Little Rock School District free of state intervention. ... I do not want you to exchange one bureaucracy for another one."

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