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School foundation opens its records 

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John Walker went to court to force the Little Rock Public Education Foundation to release their board meeting minutes under the state Freedom of Information Law, and the PEF went to court to keep them from the public eye.

The PEF lost, and the minutes are now available to anyone who cares to dig through them. What they’ll find: Much about routine matters, plus records of some interesting discussions and decisions that shed light on an organization that’s developed into a very involved and influential part of the Little Rock educational community.

The minutes trace the evolution of the foundation from its beginnings in the spring of 2002 as an attempt by then-Superintendent Ken James to boost community involvement in the Little Rock School District. There are a few possibly embarrassing moments — comments made by City Manager Bruce Moore, a PEF board member, at a May 2006 meeting about the district’s contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, for instance — but those are less interesting than the overall picture the minutes give of the foundation’s development and operations.

Foundation Executive Director Lisa Black describes the story those minutes tell as one of a group of interested community members with the time and energy to research new ways to increase student achievement in Little Rock schools, and who have always worked in partnership with district educators to determine what programs and initiatives would be most valuable.

But others look through the minutes and see a group of largely white, largely affluent people who began with good intentions, but gained a significant amount of access to and influence over district administrators and policy-making.

The Public Education Foundation was founded to be a private, non-profit agency that would raise private funds to pay for programs in the Little Rock schools that tax dollars wouldn’t typically cover. But because it has received money from the school district every year — first to help pay for the executive director’s salary, which ended last November, and this year to pay for part of the costs of the SOAR assessment program, a foundation-run project — under state law, it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The PEF has historically insisted otherwise, but Walker forced the issue with a lawsuit filed in April, and Judge Jay Moody ruled against the PEF last month.

The foundation has always had a very close relationship with district leadership. James put together the original steering committee, and was the permanent board’s first secretary. Either the district superintendent or another high-ranking district administrator has attended and given a report at virtually every foundation board meeting, and the Little Rock School Board designates one of its members to sit on the foundation board as well.

Originally, its biggest project from a financial standpoint was awarding small grants to individual teachers who wanted to try innovative techniques or programs in their classrooms. It awarded $100,000 worth of grants in 2003, the program’s first year.

Every year since then, however, the grant program has shrunk. Fewer teachers apply, fewer grants are awarded, and less money gets handed out.

Instead, the foundation has focused on bigger fish.

About a year after it was founded, the foundation’s board settled on a list of strategic goals that included establishing longitudinal tracking of student test scores in the district (also called value-added assessment, where individual students’ test scores are tracked from year to year to measure their academic growth) and beginning a “teacher quality initiative” that would include a teacher hiring and retention committee.

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