Thursday, June 2, 2016

New LRSD superintendent faces wary civic advisory panel at group's final meeting

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2016 at 11:11 PM

click to enlarge CHANGE AT THE TOP: Baker Kurrus (right, standing) addresses the Civic Advisory Committee before Mike Poore (head of table, to left) makes his presentation. - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • CHANGE AT THE TOP: Baker Kurrus (right, standing) addresses the Civic Advisory Committee before Mike Poore (head of table, to left) makes his presentation.

Mike Poore, the incoming superintendent of the Little Rock School District, fielded questions from the district's Civic Advisory Committee this evening at the panel's final meeting. After Poore outlined his "entry plan" for public outreach in the weeks ahead, members of the CAC asked him pointed questions about charter schools and more — but were also careful to make it clear that their current discontent is directed towards the state rather than Poore himself.

Poore, for his part, mostly hedged; as in the past, he wouldn't explicitly commit to opposing charter expansions. To be fair, that's only to be expected from an incoming school leader in a fraught political environment. Only time will tell where the new superintendent really stands.

The CAC is — or, after tonight, was — an entity created by the state Board of Education after it assumed control of the LRSD in January 2015. Although the advisory committee was tasked with soliciting community input on Little Rock schools when the district's elected local school board was dissolved upon takeover, it never had any real decision-making power. It did, however, take a symbolic stand against the decision to fire current LRSD Superintendent Baker Kurrus in April, including a unanimous call for the replacement of state Education Commissioner Johnny Key. It's widely assumed that Key declined to renew Kurrus' contract because of the superintendent's vocal position against charter school expansions in the city, which Key supports. 

Kurrus addressed the panel briefly, but left early to attend a principal's retirement ceremony. He thanked the CAC for its service and welcomed Poore before declaring "I want what’s best for our school district"; much of the audience gave him a standing ovation.

click to enlarge MIKE POORE - BRIAN CHILSON
Though Kurrus steps down on July 1,  Poore will begin working in the LRSD in a transitional role on June 13. He told the CAC he'd signed a lease on an apartment for him and his wife earlier that day; they'll be buying a home in the near future, he said. Poore comes to Little Rock from Bentonville Public Schools, where he's served as superintendent for several years.

Poore presented the CAC with a three-page "entry plan" describing his intent to solicit input from the community, parents, school leaders and employees before the 2016-17 school year begins. Among its items: classroom walkthroughs, town halls (both live and virtual), walking visits to neighborhoods throughout the city, and a phone outreach strategy "that will involve contacting ten students, teachers, parents, community or business leaders every day in an effort to build relationships."

Poore has said in the past that Commissioner Key and Gov. Hutchinson have charged him with returning the LRSD to local control. "I realize that may be hard to buy into," he acknowledged to the CAC this evening, but "that’s what they said to me, [and so] that’s what I believe … and I want to return things back to local control as quick as we can." After a local school board is reinstated, Poore said, he hopes the community will keep him as superintendent. "I want to be a part of working with all of you to create … an equity of opportunity in this district, for every student."

Liz Lucker, a teacher at Hall High school, told Poore that he was the 29th superintendent she's seen come to the LRSD in her 40 years with the district. "I’ve heard this all before. There has always been a plan and a vision," she said. "Teachers need to trust that someone is going to follow through on something and that something is going to happen, not the same old, same old. … When I think about the guts of education, which are the kids and the teachers and the parents and the community and so on, I need to know, ‘What’s different?’ … How do we know you really mean business?"

Poore agreed that trust can only be earned through actions — the entry plan is just "words on paper," he said — but added that he believes his career shows he can lead a challenged district in the right direction. (Although Bentonville is among the state's most affluent districts, Poore led two districts in Colorado with large percentages of poor students before coming to Arkansas.)

Kathy Webb, a member of the Little Rock City Board, asked Poore whether he, like Kurrus, would advocate "for a pause in the expansion of charter schools" in Little Rock — a critical question, given that Kurrus presumably was fired for taking a vocal position that the growth in charters threatened traditional public education in the LRSD.

Poore acknowledged that some may view him as a "token" leader installed to do the bidding of others: "Because I’m from Northwest Arkansas, because of the way things happened, because I’m white, even." (The fact Poore is from Bentonville is significant because it's the home of Jim Walton, the billionaire education reformist who's made the expansions of charters and school choice a lifelong cause.)

"First and foremost I’m the superintendent of Little Rock School District, and I have a responsibility to do everything in my power to go out and support the students in this community," Poore said. Importantly, he seemed to acknowledge, albeit somewhat obliquely, the core critique of charter expansions: That their growth tends to leave needier students in the traditional schools, which makes the LRSD worse off and more fragile. "It’s pretty clear what the LRSD student population is, what our demographics are, however you slice it ... by ethnicity, by numbers of special needs kids. ...  There should be an obligation that the charter schools educate that same group of kids."

However, he stopped short of taking a decisive position on charters. "Give me a little bit of time to pause right now and decide what i’m going to try to do to make sure that the LRSD is protected," he said, and asked community members to "hold him accountable" about such a strategy "in a few months."

Anika Whitfield, a CAC member who's been a voice consistently critical of the takeover, asked Poore about one bullet point in his entry plan that reads, "Spend time with Baker Kurrus to understand the financial and organizational plan to help move the Little Rock School District back to local control." Whitfield pointed out that the LRSD wasn't taken over because of financial reasons; the district was taken over because six schools (out of more than 40 campuses total) were in "academic distress." Whitfield said she understood that the district soon would be losing tens of millions of dollars soon in annual state aid due to the resolution of a desegregation settlement. However, she said, framing the district's problems as financial problem creates further suspicions in the community. She asked Poore for assurances that he's not a part of the "Walton Family Foundation takeover" of Little Rock schools.

Poore said the loss of $37 million annually in the coming years is a major issue requiring much planning. (During his tenure as superintendent, Kurrus, a businessman, has worked mightily to reform the district's budget). It will require reductions in staff without negatively affecting academics and student safety — a difficult task, he said, although "as I understand it, student enrollment [has stayed] pretty flat but staff has increased dramatically [over the years]." He also mentioned possible school closures, a thorny issue that will inevitably arise in the future. "I've had to go through closures in Colorado Springs. I had to close nine schools. It was godawful. It was very, very challenging."

"And what about the Walton piece?" Whitfield pressed.

"I have never been asked by Jim Walton to do anything that deals with charters," Poore said, adding that he hasn't heard his fellow school administrators in Arkansas express fears about Walton influence as a significant peril in their line of work. However, he added, "I know you’ve had your own experiences here in Little Rock."


One other LRSD related note: Earlier this afternoon. I stopped by a small student rally outside Central High School, where a few members of the student chapter of the NAACP were holding a press conference. Derek Young, the president of the group and a junior at Central, decried the state takeover as a measure that "limits the rights of the people."

Young spent a year as a student at a charter school in Washington, D.C., he said, and while he didn't find the environment itself radically different than a public school, he felt he saw a greater number of students get left behind. "Poorer families just get locked out," he said. Charter schools, he said, "get to pick and choose" their students.  "Should a student be forced to go to a lesser quality [high] school because of his or her middle school grades?" he asked.

I asked Young whether such inequity could really be blamed on charters. Was the LRSD adequately meeting the needs of struggling students — especially minority students and those from low-income homes — before the state takeover, I asked him? Not always, he acknowledged, but added that "the state should have helped failing schools" instead of taking over the entire district.
click to enlarge RALLYING: Derek Young and other students rally outside the Central High National Historic Site. - BENJAMIN HARDY
  • RALLYING: Derek Young and other students rally outside the Central High National Historic Site.

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