Thursday, October 1, 2015

Little Rock School District sets announcement; includes deal on building for West Little Rock middle school

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2015 at 12:15 PM

click to enlarge EYED FOR SCHOOL: Former Leisure Arts facility.
  • EYED FOR SCHOOL: Former Leisure Arts facility.

Little Rock School Superintendent Baker Kurrus
has scheduled an important announcement at 1 p.m. today.

Our sources indicate Kurrus will announce the district has put under contract the vacant Leisure Arts building on Ranch Drive off Highway 10 as the site of a middle school. Gary Newton, a lobbyist for Walton-financed education groups that push charter schools and other "reforms," has been lobbying the school district to buy the building.

The district has promised a middle school in western Little Rock and  bought land adjacent to Leisure Arts for the school, but finances have delayed a move — along with a plan for other planned facilities improvements, particularly a rebuilt McClellan High School in Southwest Little Rock. The elected Little Rock School Board had vowed to do the west and southwest improvements concurrently, but the school board no longer exists since the state took over the district in January. Kurrus was named to lead the district in May.

It reportedly isn't a certainty that the Leisure Arts will be converted to a school, but putting it under contract will allow a study of its use. 

Moving on the school addresses Newton's frequent threats that people were prepared to open new charter schools in the area if the Little Rock district didn't take action. Newton, with Walton help, started the Quest charter middle school in Chenal Valley last year, and the LISA Academy hopes to expand its middle and high school that already exists near Markham and I-430. Kurrus had said earlier that he didn't want to consider the middle school singularly, but as part of a districtwide strategy.

Benji Hardy will be on hand with questions.

UPDATE: Kurrus sent a letter to district employees about the announcement. 

Here it is.
It says the conditional purchase contract is for $11.5 million and is in the spirit of plans previously adopted by the board. He said state Education Commissioner Johnny Key was supportive. No doubt. Anything that's good for Newton and the Waltons is good for Key.

Kurrus noticed that the promise of concurrent movement on west and southwest projects was conditioned on a millage campaign that wouldn't likely succeed today, but the district needed to move forward. He said a planning process will begin now on the new high school, too, a process that could take four to five years to completion.

The contract on Leisure Arts will give the district 180 days to study the building's suitability for a school. Could it open as a school as early as next year? Parents of children at Roberts Elementary would like it, undoubtedly.

The letter doesn't identify source of the money, but Kurrus has said the district was accruing reserves and potentially could reap savings from bond refinancing.

Key later issued a statement:

"This announcement by Mr. Kurrus represents two significant milestones for the Little Rock School District. Having a modern education facility in southwest Little Rock that will provide 21st Century learning opportunities should create excitement for the students and families in that part of the city. At the same time, this agreement on the former Leisure Arts facility will allow us to determine the feasibility of converting this building to meet the educational needs of students in a rapidly growing part of the city. I fully support moving to the next steps of both of these initiatives."

State Rep. John Walker, a lawyer who's battled the district for years over segregation, wasn't happy at today's news. He said it caters to Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, state Board of Education members Diane Zook and Vicki Saviers and predominantly white western Little Rock to the detriment of children in the rest of the city, particularly poor minority students. These and others figure in an argument by Walker that race discrimination is at the core of the state takeover of the distrct. It could yet appear in a new legal proceeding.

Coincidentally, a meeting is scheduled this evening at Pleasant Valley Church of Christ to rally western Little Rock people behind building more secondary schools in that part of town.

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