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A hot race is shaping up for the Sept. 18 election for the Zone 2 seat on the Little Rock School Board. Incumbent Michael Daugherty faces three challengers — Anna Swaim, Michael Nellums and Drew Pritt.

The election will decide the balance of power on the School Board, currently held by a four-member majority including Daugherty. Swaim has already said she disagrees with the desegregation lawsuit mediation favored by the current majority. Nellums, a principal in the Pulaski County School District, has indicated he'd likely part with Daugherty on his opposition to merit pay programs and support for the Classroom Teachers Association.

Can Daugherty, a 12-year incumbent, be beaten? His electoral track record holds scant clues. He won his first term in 1995 with a 376-255 win over Robert Willingham. He had no opposition the next three outings. Daugherty, who is black, enjoyed a demographic advantage in a district that is about two-thirds black until Nellums, who also is black, filed at the last minute. But predicting turnouts in School Board elections is no science. Daugherty and Swaim will have get-out-the-vote efforts and all believe the vote will be far higher than that 1995 election. Nellums has already been going door-to-door, too.

Better than who?

The Pulaski County School District has invested $50,000 in a print and TV ad campaign anchored by the slogan, “Better Scores. Greater Stability.” The PR man who devised the campaign, Craig Douglass, insists the campaign isn't designed to score points off recent controversy in the school district, merely to emphasize the district's return to fiscal stability and its higher scores than Little Rock and North Little Rock schools on most standardized tests.

Well, yes, but … Pulaski County, first of all, fell behind the state average on benchmark tests in 2006 at every grade level. Second of all, the district is majority white. The other districts in Pulaski County are majority black and the achievement gap between white and black students nationwide is well-documented, making straight comparisons misleading. Finally, broken down by race, Pulaski County lags substantially behind Little Rock and the state in white students' scores, though it tends to be higher in black students' scores. An example is the percentages of white and black students scoring proficient or better on 8th grade literacy:

Blacks statewide 44

Whites statewide 73

Blacks LR 47

Whites LR 85

Blacks Pulaski 49.5

Whites Pulaski 68.8

Yes, but ….

Pulaski County ACORN, the grassroots group, has endorsed the two proposals on a special election ballot Aug. 14 in Little Rock. The measures would make the job of mayor full-time and enhance the job's power, with a veto and power to hire the city manager and city attorney, among others.

ACORN said this was a “positive first step,” but added that it does not address the need for “fair representation in city government.” ACORN wants to eliminate the three at-large seats on the city board of directors because they dilute the voting strength of poorer neighborhoods. Johnnie Pugh, a former city director, notes that Little Rock is more than 40 percent black, but blacks have had less than 30 percent of the seats on the 11-member board. Since 1957, she noted, only five blacks and seven women had been elected to at-large seats. She promised a new petition drive in the fall to change to ward elections.

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