This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
A Little Rock School District employee pulled me aside recently and said I was missing a big story.
He said Superintendent Linda Watson had managed to achieve the impossible — biracial agreement among School Board members on a critical issue.
The bad news is that a shared opinion of black and white board members seems to be that the superintendent isn't getting the job done. Watson's old friend, Board member Katherine Mitchell, is an exception, but she's been quiet as criticism of Watson mounts.
More solid evidence came last week. Watson's request for a new deputy superintendent was tabled, rather than face sure Board defeat. Significantly, black Board member Micheal Daugherty expressed his opposition to the idea to me before the meeting. The Board followed that event with criticism for Watson's incoherent idea on spending expected federal stimulus money. It was a laundry list of this-and-that without controlling theme. (The district should take the money and build a middle school in west Little Rock, if only it could.) Board President Dianne Curry is also pressing Watson on (non-existent) administrative cuts and the extent of outside consulting contracts.
Watson, who is black and a long-time district employee, was the choice of the new black board majority, which often lined up against a white minority on key votes. She hasn't proven herself as a manager and leader. Her critics think she's fattened administrative costs and some accuse her of cronyism in hiring. Her plan for an early retirement incentive to reduce district staff was a failure. It lacked advance detail work, as have some of her personnel appointments.
Civil rights attorney John Walker, a powerful influence in the district, has made no secret of his dissatisfaction. He has said Watson is not well-informed about the system for monitoring educational progress, the critical final element in the federal court decision to end supervision of district desegregation. He's not satisfied that the district is doing enough to close student achievement gaps.
Watson has also resisted the work of a strategic planning committee, a blue-ribbon group of business and education leaders who soon will recommend an outside audit by the experts who guided the state's successful response to the Lakeview school ruling. They'll look at management of resources and district effectiveness at targeting resources where kids have needs. Watson has reportedly said she's sorry she created the planning group. She soon will have to accept its recommendations.
Nobody longs for another messy superintendent battle (and, no, nobody wants Roy Brooks back). But Watson's annual evaluation is to be conducted at this week's School Board meeting. It seems likely that she's going to “need improvement” in several respects. She'll be evaluated by a School Boards Association standard form, a “touchy feely,” subjective model in the words of one School Board member. But there will be a push on the Board to set specific short-term goals for Watson. They could form the basis of an objective re-evaluation in, say, six months.
Board members want Watson to succeed, by which they mean streamline the district and do a better job of focusing on lagging students. But I get a strong sense that a majority of the Board — and district supporters in every racial and economic strata — aren't ready to give her the full two years remaining on her contract absent evidence that she's delivering. Nor should they.
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