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A change of leadership 

The recent controversy over Karen DeJarnette’s decision to go public with concerns about Little Rock Superintendent Roy Brooks’ handling of desegregation efforts might have played out very differently if she’d chosen to come forward a month or two earlier.

Since Brooks was hired in 2004, he had enjoyed nearly unanimous, rarely questioned support from the Little Rock School Board. With the exception of veteran board member Katherine Mitchell, Brooks typically was able to convince board members to back the policy and program changes he wanted.

“Since Brooks got here, votes have been 5-2 and 6-1,” new board president Katherine Mitchell said. “He always had five white boys to vote in his favor the last year. Whatever he wanted, he got it.”

That appears to have changed.

The school board elections in September and October ousted two white pro-Brooks board members, Tony Rose and Tom Brock. In their place, voters chose two black candidates, Dianne Curry and Charles Armstrong, who had the strong support of both the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association and civil rights attorney John Walker, who has been the district’s adversary in desegregation lawsuits for decades and who represents the Joshua intervenors, the class of black students in the current desegregation suit.

The third new board member, Melanie Fox, replaced Bryan Day, who didn’t seek re-election. She did not have the support of the CTA, and has closer ties to the business community that has previously held a large amount of influence over the board and district administrators.

The elections changed the racial composition of the board from five white, two black to four black, three white. It’s the first time in the district’s history that the board has been majority African-American. And while all of the board members, black and white, have said they do not want race to be a factor in the board’s decisions, several major votes have so far broken along racial lines.

“That really concerns me,” new board president Katherine Mitchell said about public speculation about the board’s new racial make-up. “All these years this board has been majority Caucasian. That has never been an issue, whether people going to vote along racial lines.”

Armstrong said he thinks the new board will be more sensitive to the community as a whole, including the need to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

“We’re all about educating the children,” he said. “That’s our number one cause regardless of color of skin. This is 2006. I don’t think we’re living in 1886.”

But Walker said he hopes the board’s black majority will vote with their race in mind.

“I expect these people to act according to what’s in the best interest of children that need their attention the most,” Walker said. “That’s minority children. There should not be a group of white people continuing to set policy exclusively for black children.

“Remember now, this is first time blacks have been in position to determine anything. We’ve had a voice at the table, but could never make a decision,” he said. “I would hope they would take into account the historical dereliction in board priorities.”

There are also rumblings of concern about whether Walker will now exert some influence over board decisions because of his staunch support of new board members Charles Armstrong and Dianne Curry. At the Nov. 9 board meeting where DeJarnette’s allegations were discussed, Walker frequently was allowed to speak directly to board members outside of the normal protocol for public comment.

Mitchell, who said she had twice beaten candidates Walker supported in races against her, downplayed that idea, and said Walker’s openness was a welcome change from more behind-the-scenes involvement of several high-profile businessmen in recent years, including Arkansas Democrat-Gazette owner Walter Hussman, who contributed the money to finance teacher merit-pay programs at several elementary schools. Initially, the administration tried to implement the programs without a vote by board members approving them.

“At least he’s vocal openly,” Mitchell said of Walker. “Walter Hussman has been very vocal. He has lunch with superintendent, he gives money. It’s just that John Walker hasn’t affected our policy. Walter Hussman — his actions haven’t been vocal, but they certainly have affected our policies and procedures.”

The new board has already declared its independence from Brooks in several votes in October and November.

First, they elected Mitchell, a veteran board member, president — a departure from tradition, which dictated that the previous year’s vice president became the board’s leader. That would have been Baker Kurrus, a Brooks supporter. The vote was 4-3, with all four black members voting for Mitchell and the three white members voting for Kurrus. Kurrus then asked that the vote be expunged and his nomination withdrawn, and Mitchell was elected unanimously. Armstrong was elected vice president over Larry Berkley in a similar fashion. Fox was elected secretary.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, DeJarnette was allowed to address the board and voice her concerns about the district’s compliance with the federal court’s desegregation order, and more specifically, what she said were Brooks’ efforts to prevent the board from getting an accurate picture of where the district stood.

Several board members, led by Mitchell, chastised Brooks and district attorney Chris Heller for hiring an outside law firm to investigate DeJarnette’s allegations without the board’s approval. Mitchell told Brooks that he had repeatedly overstepped his authority since he’d taken the superintendent’s job in 2004.

The board eventually voted to hire the firm, but demanded that the final report be submitted directly to the board, and not be filtered through district administrators first.

At the regular board meeting a week later, several votes went against Brooks. Board members voted not to approve his plan to sell the now-closed Mitchell Elementary School and use the money for repairs to other school buildings. Their decision gives a neighborhood association who fought the closure of the school more time to raise money to buy the building.

Board members also tabled, at the suggestion of Kurrus, three policy changes proposed by the administration. Two dealt with limiting the political activities of district employees, and board members of both races questioned whether the changes were too invasive and restricted. The third change would limit information requests by the board members themselves, so that any information request from an individual board member that district administrators determined would take more than 45 minutes to answer would not be taken on without a consensus of the board.

The board did vote to approve a resolution saying the district was committed to continuing to fulfill the desegregation order’s requirements to evaluate programs aimed at improving minority students’ achievement even after the district is declared unitary and released from court supervision. But the vote was 4-0: Mitchell was absent, and Curry and Armstrong abstained. Daugherty, Kurrus, Fox and Berkley voted in favor.

How the new tide will affect Brooks’ tenure in the district remains to be seen. Last summer, board members voted 5-2 to extend Brooks’ contract; Mitchell and Robert M. Daugherty — at the time the board’s only two non-white members — were the “no” votes.

Mitchell said that as much as she disagrees with Brooks, she doesn’t think that buying out his contract is an option.

“I don’t ever intend to do that,” she said. “We don’t have the money to waste. What I want to do is do something we haven’t done since he’s been there: have the board give him some real goals. He hasn’t had any. I want to sit with him and establish some goals and see if he can reach them. Just like we do with principals and teachers.”

Brooks’ current contract expires in the summer of 2009. Board members could vote next summer to extend it another year, or let it run out. Brooks could also find a job in another district — not uncommon for superintendents of larger school districts, even after just two or three years in a district.

The recent controversy over Karen DeJarnette’s decision to go public with concerns about Little Rock Superintendent Roy Brooks’ handling of desegregation efforts might have played out very differently if she’d chosen to come forward a month or two earlier.

Since Brooks was hired in 2004, he had enjoyed nearly unanimous, rarely questioned support from the Little Rock School Board. With the exception of veteran board member Katherine Mitchell, Brooks typically was able to convince board members to back the policy and program changes he wanted.

“Since Brooks got here, votes have been 5-2 and 6-1,” new board president Katherine Mitchell said. “He always had five white boys to vote in his favor the last year. Whatever he wanted, he got it.”

That appears to have changed.

The school board elections in September and October ousted two white pro-Brooks board members, Tony Rose and Tom Brock. In their place, voters chose two black candidates, Dianne Curry and Charles Armstrong, who had the strong support of both the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association and civil rights attorney John Walker, who has been the district’s adversary in desegregation lawsuits for decades and who represents the Joshua intervenors, the class of black students in the current desegregation suit.

The third new board member, Melanie Fox, replaced Bryan Day, who didn’t seek re-election. She did not have the support of the CTA, and has closer ties to the business community that has previously held a large amount of influence over the board and district administrators.

The elections changed the racial composition of the board from five white, two black to four black, three white. It’s the first time in the district’s history that the board has been majority African-American. And while all of the board members, black and white, have said they do not want race to be a factor in the board’s decisions, several major votes have so far broken along racial lines.

“That really concerns me,” new board president Katherine Mitchell said about public speculation about the board’s new racial make-up. “All these years this board has been majority Caucasian. That has never been an issue, whether people going to vote along racial lines.”

Armstrong said he thinks the new board will be more sensitive to the community as a whole, including the need to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

“We’re all about educating the children,” he said. “That’s our number one cause regardless of color of skin. This is 2006. I don’t think we’re living in 1886.”

But Walker said he hopes the board’s black majority will vote with their race in mind.

“I expect these people to act according to what’s in the best interest of children that need their attention the most,” Walker said. “That’s minority children. There should not be a group of white people continuing to set policy exclusively for black children.

“Remember now, this is first time blacks have been in position to determine anything. We’ve had a voice at the table, but could never make a decision,” he said. “I would hope they would take into account the historical dereliction in board priorities.”

There are also rumblings of concern about whether Walker will now exert some influence over board decisions because of his staunch support of new board members Charles Armstrong and Dianne Curry. At the Nov. 9 board meeting where DeJarnette’s allegations were discussed, Walker frequently was allowed to speak directly to board members outside of the normal protocol for public comment.

Mitchell, who said she had twice beaten candidates Walker supported in races against her, downplayed that idea, and said Walker’s openness was a welcome change from more behind-the-scenes involvement of several high-profile businessmen in recent years, including Arkansas Democrat-Gazette owner Walter Hussman, who contributed the money to finance teacher merit-pay programs at several elementary schools. Initially, the administration tried to implement the programs without a vote by board members approving them.

“At least he’s vocal openly,” Mitchell said of Walker. “Walter Hussman has been very vocal. He has lunch with superintendent, he gives money. It’s just that John Walker hasn’t affected our policy. Walter Hussman — his actions haven’t been vocal, but they certainly have affected our policies and procedures.”

The new board has already declared its independence from Brooks in several votes in October and November.

First, they elected Mitchell, a veteran board member, president — a departure from tradition, which dictated that the previous year’s vice president became the board’s leader. That would have been Baker Kurrus, a Brooks supporter. The vote was 4-3, with all four black members voting for Mitchell and the three white members voting for Kurrus. Kurrus then asked that the vote be expunged and his nomination withdrawn, and Mitchell was elected unanimously. Armstrong was elected vice president over Larry Berkley in a similar fashion. Fox was elected secretary.

At the Nov. 9 meeting, DeJarnette was allowed to address the board and voice her concerns about the district’s compliance with the federal court’s desegregation order, and more specifically, what she said were Brooks’ efforts to prevent the board from getting an accurate picture of where the district stood.

Several board members, led by Mitchell, chastised Brooks and district attorney Chris Heller for hiring an outside law firm to investigate DeJarnette’s allegations without the board’s approval. Mitchell told Brooks that he had repeatedly overstepped his authority since he’d taken the superintendent’s job in 2004.

The board eventually voted to hire the firm, but demanded that the final report be submitted directly to the board, and not be filtered through district administrators first.

At the regular board meeting a week later, several votes went against Brooks. Board members voted not to approve his plan to sell the now-closed Mitchell Elementary School and use the money for repairs to other school buildings. Their decision gives a neighborhood association who fought the closure of the school more time to raise money to buy the building.

Board members also tabled, at the suggestion of Kurrus, three policy changes proposed by the administration. Two dealt with limiting the political activities of district employees, and board members of both races questioned whether the changes were too invasive and restricted. The third change would limit information requests by the board members themselves, so that any information request from an individual board member that district administrators determined would take more than 45 minutes to answer would not be taken on without a consensus of the board.

The board did vote to approve a resolution saying the district was committed to continuing to fulfill the desegregation order’s requirements to evaluate programs aimed at improving minority students’ achievement even after the district is declared unitary and released from court supervision. But the vote was 4-0: Mitchell was absent, and Curry and Armstrong abstained. Daugherty, Kurrus, Fox and Berkley voted in favor.

How the new tide will affect Brooks’ tenure in the district remains to be seen. Last summer, board members voted 5-2 to extend Brooks’ contract; Mitchell and Robert M. Daugherty — at the time the board’s only two non-white members — were the “no” votes.

Mitchell said that as much as she disagrees with Brooks, she doesn’t think that buying out his contract is an option.

“I don’t ever intend to do that,” she said. “We don’t have the money to waste. What I want to do is do something we haven’t done since he’s been there: have the board give him some real goals. He hasn’t had any. I want to sit with him and establish some goals and see if he can reach them. Just like we do with principals and teachers.”

Brooks’ current contract expires in the summer of 2009. Board members could vote next summer to extend it another year, or let it run out. Brooks could also find a job in another district — not uncommon for superintendents of larger school districts, even after just two or three years in a district.

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