Filling in the blanks 

Interim superintendent Watson talks about her goals.


Linda Watson is measured in her responses to a reporter about what she thinks of merit pay, No Child Left Behind and her connection to school board president Katherine Mitchell.

But meeting with teachers at Rockefeller Elementary recently to hand out Teacher Advancement Program checks, she is effusive, familiar and teacherly at once. “Why am I here?” she asks rhetorically, and then congratulates the school for coming off the school improvement list. She'd like to see more schools come off the list. “I can't do a holy dance” to make it happen she says. “I can drop it like it's hot, but I can't do a holy dance.”

It is hot, the doings in the Little Rock School District these days, with the school board divided along racial lines, and Watson, successor to the fired superintendent Roy Brooks, is a big question mark. Will she do the bidding of Mitchell, who was instrumental in forcing out Brooks over the objections of the white members of the black-majority board? Or will she take her leadership cues from all the members of the board? What does it mean that her brother donated $1,000 to the campaign of board incumbent Micheal Daugherty, who faces a white candidate, Anna Swaim, in a runoff Tuesday?

Here's what Watson says: She knows Mitchell, yes. “I'll let people draw their own conclusions” on whether that friendship will shape her superintendency. The board, she says, is made up of “seven great people,” who are “not as divided as they appear. It's a thankless job ... whatever is going on I believe they're going to work it out.” And she is not her brother's keeper: “I am Dr. Linda Watson and he is Dr. Maurice Watson.” Furthermore, she said, “I am going to work with whomever's in the seat.”

Watson, 54, was chosen from within the district — she's been the head of the student discipline office for the past decade and a district employee for 15 years — to act as interim superintendent by a rare unanimous vote of the board. There was quibbling over her pay — $167,900 with a $20,000 annuity for the year — at an August meeting, but the board member who complained the loudest, Baker Kurrus, called on her the next day to “make very clear to her that I was supportive. It was a constructive, positive meeting,” he said.

Watson said she doesn't plan to turn the district upside down — “It wouldn't be wise for me to make wholesale changes” — but she sounds like someone out to prove that a district employee deserves a chance at the top. When the board gave her the interim position, “it was an opportunity to see if a home-grown person could do the job,” she said.

Watson does have an agenda: She has asked the Planning, Research and Evaluation Department to look at which programs are producing the best educational results. Stephens Elementary's experiment with reducing teacher-pupil ratios has paid off, she said, as has Reading Recovery, a literacy program for grades K-3. She's interested in finding ways to spread those programs around.

The goal of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires testing and punishes schools that don't achieve what's called “adequate yearly progress” by putting them on an “improvement list,” is a “lofty” one, Watson said, but one that would be easier to achieve had federal dollars been allocated. She is not an enemy of testing, however.



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