Wednesday, January 28, 2015

State Board of Education takes over Little Rock School District

Posted By on Wed, Jan 28, 2015 at 3:33 PM

click to enlarge STATE BOARD: Jay Barth (second from left in background) lost a compromise for the school district's continued existence on a 4-4 vote when Chairman Ledbetter (right) declined to break the tie.
  • STATE BOARD: Jay Barth (second from left in background) lost a compromise for the school district's continued existence on a 4-4 vote when Chairman Ledbetter (right) declined to break the tie.

With Board chair Sam Ledbetter breaking a 4-4 tie, the state Board of Education today voted to take over the entire Little Rock School District, the state's largestfor the academic distress of six of the district's schools.

The Board is gone. Superintendent Dexter Suggs was specifically retained, despite a lack of demonstration of ability to run the district.

The Billionaires Boys Club and its allies at the chamber of commerce won a hard-won and well-orchestrated battle. They had sympathizers from some unusual allies, though, such as Ledbetter, who accepted the assessment of honest brokers that the district is on a downward trend that requires dramatic change.

Benji Hardy will be writing more.

There was much talk about returning the district to local control expeditiously and so on, but it won't happen quickly and local input is now meaningless. A key question in the future is the future state Education Director. Tony Wood will be the school board for now, but he's leaving in June.

Irony: A compromise by Board member Jay Barth of Little Rock would have had the district "partner" with the state Department on the six distressed schools, but with takeover a clear option for failure to progress. A vote on his motion split 4-4 and Ledbetter declined to break the tie for Barth, a solid indication of where he ultimately fell on the issue. CORRECTION: It wasn't clear to observers, but Ledbetter says he actually voted against the Barth motion in the course of declaring it had not passed. Tony Wood said he had some concerns about getting together an operative plan for Barth's idea quickly. But he said the state would have no problem taking over the district entirely tomorrow.

In recent days, the takeover advocates had carefully modulated their language, moving from direct advocacy of takeover to emphasizing the need for change. Even John Riggs, for months a takeover advocate, didn't employ the word. He was one of only two people at more than five hours of hearing who seemed to favor takeover, along with Aristotle's CEO, Marla Johnson. My guess is that the chamber of commerce, which has lots of experience counting votes, figured it had the five it needed and didn't want to pour more fuel on a class and racial fire that was already smoldering.

The votes for takeover included Diane Zook, wife of Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and aunt of Gary Newton, who heads several organizations financed by the Walton Family Foundation and advocates establishment of charter schools. Others included Vicki Saviers of Little Rock, who's served on the board of the pro-charter-school Arkansans for Education Reform, a lobby financed by the Waltons and other wealthy Arkansans. She also helped found the eStem charter school in Little Rock, another beneficiary of Walton money. Another takeover vote was Kim Davis of Fayetteville, director of external relations for the Northwest Arkansas Council, a private development group whose key backers are the Walton Family Foundation, Sam's Club and Tyson Foods. The other vote for takeover, besides Ledbetter, was Toyce Newton of Crossett, who heads Phoenix Youth and Family Services. She has served on the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has been partnering with the Walton Family Foundation on an education improvement project. Saviers is on the Rockefeller Foundation board as well. The Rockefeller Foundation is a financial contributor to Newton's nonprofit.

Voting against the takeover were Barth, Mireya Reith of Fayetteville, Alice Mahony of El Dorado and Joe Black of Newport.

ALSO: As something of a brief afterthought, the Board adopted a motion to study the boundaries of the four Pulaski County school districts (counting the new Jacksonville district.) Reorganizing the districts on geographic lines has long been viewed as a potential plus for education by many. North Little Rock, however, is undoubtedly happy to be left alone, given its recent success with a tax campaign to finance a dramatic distrct reorganization. The awkward Pulaski District, which includes Maumelle and Sherwood areas yearning to break free as Jacksonville did, is another matter.

I haven't been able to make contact with John Walker. He said before the meeting, at which the civil rights lawyer and legislator opposed the takeover, that he was prepared to sue to challenge a takeover. The Little Rock School Board's lawyer, Chris Heller, had also questioned the board's legal authority for takeover. But he no longer has an employer.

Arkansas Community Organizations, which marshaled much of the outpouring of student, parent and community support for preservation of a democratically controlled district, issued a statement from its president Justice of the Peace Donna Massey:

“Today’s narrow decision by the State Board of Education to remove Little Rock’s elected school board and retain the current superintendent is destructive and will further strain relations in our city between black and white, rich and poor, and neighborhoods north of I-630 and those located south of I-630. On Monday night we saw a large and diverse crowd of people meeting with their elected representatives on the school board to oppose the proposed state takeover. At today’s hearing we heard testimony from many Little Rock residents (including many young people) about the challenges students faced and the ways that teachers and administrators in the district helped those students overcome and succeed. Today’s decision was overkill and will not lead to real change, progress and equity that our communities and schools so desperately need.

“Going forward we will work with other organizations in the communities we serve to do whatever it takes to ensure that the decision made by the State Board of Education will be short term so that we can all begin again to work for real change in our schools and real progress in giving low- to moderate-income students and parents the resources they need to succeed.”

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