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With Little Rock's schools in the balance, Superintendent Baker Kurrus faces fearsome choices 

The threat of privatization looms large over the LRSD as Kurrus leads it after a state takeover.

IN CHARGE: Five years after his time on the Little Rock School District's board ended, Baker Kurrus returns as superintendent. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • IN CHARGE: Five years after his time on the Little Rock School District's board ended, Baker Kurrus returns as superintendent.

On March 6, just five weeks after the Little Rock School District was taken over by the state of Arkansas, Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) filed legislation that threatened to undermine the foundations of traditional public education in the city.

House Bill 1733 originated with a group funded largely by the Walton Family Foundation, which advocates for "reform" strategies built on the introduction of market forces into public education, such as more charter schools. The bill proposed a sweeping expansion of the authority of the state Education Commissioner within districts under state control because of an "academic distress" designation, such as the LRSD. It empowered the commissioner, who heads the Department of Education, to outsource the operations of any school within such a district, or the entire district itself, to a private entity — a charter management organization. It allowed charters to capture a portion of local property taxes to fund their operations and to use existing school facilities, rather than constructing their own buildings. And, it authorized the commissioner to both waive the state law requiring due process when firing teachers — the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act — and instantly void any contract with a local union.

The arrival of HB 1733 seemed to confirm the suspicions of many who opposed the takeover of the LRSD back in January: that Little Rock's school system, like those in American cities from New Orleans to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., was slated for wholesale or partial privatization. There was little doubt the bill was aimed at Little Rock, not only because it had recently come under state control, but also because the LRSD is one of only two districts in the state that has a union recognized by its district for contract negotiations. And the fact HB 1733 was almost immediately endorsed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson lent credence to the narrative that the state's plans for the LRSD post-takeover were following a blueprint mapped out by the Walton Family Foundation and other powerful players bent on squashing the teachers union and (whether motivated by ideological conviction or some obscure financial interest) turning public schools over to private operators.

But then, in the face of dwindling legislative support, the sponsor abruptly pulled HB 1733 without so much as a vote in committee. A groundswell of popular opposition from Little Rock residents rallying outside the Capitol surely helped, although the deciding factor was likely the lobbying work of statewide education groups representing teachers, school boards, superintendents and others. Those interests saw HB 1733 as a potential threat to traditional public schools in Arkansas writ large, even if its proximate target was clearly the LRSD.

It's necessary to keep HB 1733 in mind when considering the task now facing Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus, the man the state appointed to run the LRSD. Yes, the episode illustrates that "reformers" like the Walton Family Foundation see the takeover as an opportunity to accomplish the charterization of the LRSD — but the bill's rapid withdrawal also suggests agnosticism about the "reform" agenda in some quarters of state government.

A corporate lawyer and businessman, Kurrus, 60, is undeniably a member of Little Rock's moneyed class. He's no champion of the charter movement, however, having spent over a decade as an elected member of the Little Rock School Board, from 1998 to 2010. He knows the district's policy questions and the city's power dynamics like few others do. Yet he lacks a traditional superintendent's qualifications. Kurrus has no formal training in education, which meant his appointment required a waiver of law by the State Board of Education. That, combined with the fact that Education Commissioner Johnny Key hired him with no advance notice to the community and no public discussion, reinforced the notion already held by some in Little Rock that the state takeover amounted to a hostile occupation of the district. It didn't help that Key himself — a former Republican state senator who has also never been an educator — was not legally qualified to hold the commissioner's seat until the legislature changed state law this spring to pave the way for his appointment.

Kurrus' challenges are threefold. The first is academic: a stark disparity in student achievement, which largely breaks down along lines of race, class and neighborhood. The second is fiscal: the loss of $37 million annually from the district's budget as payments from the state to the LRSD as the result of a desegregation settlement come to a close in the next two years. The third is political: a 60-year legacy of turmoil within the district that's resulted in toxic levels of public mistrust and disenfranchisement, much of it regarding race.

Above it all looms the existential threat of privatization. When the state board voted Jan. 28 to dissolve the local LRSD board, governance of the district became vested in a single person, Commissioner Key. Even without the expanded mandate of HB 1733, Key could take steps to convert any of Little Rock's six academically distressed schools into charters if he chose to do so. Significantly, that's not yet happened. When Key appointed a new superintendent this May (with the evident blessing of his boss, Gov. Hutchinson) he chose Kurrus rather than a gung-ho reformer.

Voluble, charismatic and gregarious, Kurrus has emphasized relationship-building and budget-trimming during his first three months on the job. He's in constant motion, making certain to visit each school in the district and speak as frequently as possible to students, staff and parents — a marked contrast from his predecessor, Dexter Suggs, who was known as remote and aloof. (Suggs departed the district under a cloud in late April amid allegations that he plagiarized a portion of his doctoral dissertation; he was nonetheless awarded severance pay that will amount to $250,000 when complete at the end of this year.) Thus far, Kurrus has cut some $12 million from the district's budget, partly through central office layoffs initiated by Suggs and partly by shortening the amount of planning time allotted to teachers at some schools.

When it comes to larger questions about the direction of the LRSD, though, Kurrus tends to diplomatically defer.

"I have a lot of ideas," he told the Arkansas Times recently. "I have a lot of front line experience and knowledge and access to facts that most people don't have, so I'll have strong opinions — but I don't act on those. It's not for me to decide things that are policy-related. The superintendent is an executive role, not a policymaker, and there's a huge difference."

State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), an advocate of traditional public schools and a former teacher, said she thought Kurrus was "working at his job very earnestly and in a very dedicated fashion."

But, she added, "I do think the circumstances that created the position did kind of poison the well for many people in the community who are very, very upset about [the takeover]. ... It's not about the person; it's about the position itself. It's the power vested in that position."

The academic outlook

The Little Rock School District was taken over by the state because its 48 campuses included six in academic distress: three high schools (Hall, J.A. Fair and McClellan), two middle schools (Cloverdale and Henderson) and one elementary school (Baseline). A school is in academic distress when fewer than 49.5 percent of its students score Proficient or Advanced on standardized tests in math and literacy. (There are four score ranges on standardized tests: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic.)

Education "reform" advocates pin the blame for underperforming schools primarily on bad teachers and a venal union. A Jan. 11 editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette suggested that then-superintendent Suggs needed "a freer hand — so he can clear the classrooms of those teachers who are just sleep-walking to retirement. ... It's got to be hard to ask a teacher to teach (rather than show Disney movies all day) if he or she knows very well that there's no way a pink slip will ever show up in that teacher's next pay envelope. Or, even if it did, the teachers' union would just bail out the so-called teacher." The newspaper's publisher, Walter Hussman, is a longtime advocate for charter schools. Suggs himself also played this card, once telling the state Board of Education prior to takeover that "the LRSD has been ... an employment agency for quite some time."

Kurrus, on the other hand, vehemently disagreed that the problems of the academically distressed schools are primarily the result of lower-quality staff.

"I would never concede that point," he said. "Frankly, if you look at the six distressed schools, five of them are secondary schools, and every single one of those schools enrolls a high percentage of students who are below Proficient from the moment they [walk in] the doors of those schools ... That's no indictment of the people who are in there, certainly not of the teachers. It's the reality of the student assignment system we have that tends to cycle certain students in certain directions."

"If you have, say, an elementary school that has 55 percent of its students who are Proficient and Advanced, what does that tell you? You have 45 percent who are Basic or Below Basic. Well, if you have a number of those [elementary] schools, some of the kids end up going into an environment where some of the high achievers [also] end up. ... The rest of the kids who are Basic or Below Basic end up in the same [middle] school, and that school automatically hits the screen through no fault of its own."

Kurrus also acknowledged that socioeconomics play an outsized role in predicting success among students. "In a city like ours where you have wide disparities in income — and income correlates to student achievement at the earliest grades — we have to deal with that. That's a huge reality in our world. ... Some private or charter schools don't deal with that, but we do. And we don't run from the challenge. ... We feel like that's the work that's calling us every day."

However, Kurrus' critics say he has thus far made few bold moves to directly address academics. Considering the statutory justification for the takeover was low student achievement — not finances — it's fair to expect learning to be prioritized. Perhaps the most concrete change is happening at Baseline Elementary, which is being reconfigured under a new principal.

That's not enough, said Jim Ross, one of the former members of the local school board that was dissolved by the state in January. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the takeover.

"We have achieved the status quo — which was the point all along, right?" Ross said. "Our teachers are not properly trained about how to educate poor children, who start years behind middle-class kids. ... We've got a redesign for Baseline, [but] we still have no comprehensive reading strategy. We still have the exact same administration in place."

One high school teacher in the district echoed that sentiment in a letter to the Times. "I've heard little from him or anyone else regarding how to help the six academically distressed schools. ... Kurrus is willing to admit he is not an educator and will listen to educators regarding education. But he has not done anything to secure trust in him yet," she wrote.

Still, Kurrus has taken proactive steps regarding the organization and management of personnel throughout the district, which he cites as one of its major ailments. Sandra Register, the principal at Terry Elementary — which is one of the highest performing elementary schools among those with a large percentage of students from low-income homes — said Kurrus' policy of empowering principals has had a tangible effect in her building.

"It's a change," she said. "He's basically given us back our leadership, with support from the district. He invites sharing of information and he's very quick to respond. There's a renewed culture of openness and fairness.

"Before, you were told, 'Everybody does this, everybody does that,' all across the board ... . Now, the principal has the freedom to decide what's best for all the students in that building."

A veteran teacher at Hall High said she'd seen little change in her school and remained skeptical of Kurrus, but was encouraged by his engagement with teachers.

"I think once you get in the trenches and you see some of the teachers teaching, you see some of the stuff going on and the clientele we're dealing with, you realize that there's not a bunch of fat, lazy teachers sitting over there not trying.

"I still think he was sent to do the bidding of the Waltons, but I think he actually is starting to see the teachers' side of things, the realistic side of things. And it's probably going to end up getting him booted out, and they'll put somebody else in ... somebody else who does toe the line."

The union

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, the day before the 2015-16 school began for certified staff, teachers received word that their contract — a 93-page document that has been negotiated over the past half-century between the district and the local union, the Little Rock Education Association — was about to go away. The news came not from district administration, nor from LREA President Cathy Koehler, but from a Facebook page managed by Jim Ross, who said he learned of the change through a Freedom of Information Act request.

NEGOTIATING WITH KURRUS: Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • NEGOTIATING WITH KURRUS: Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association.

The Hall High teacher said the news about the contract "threw morale into chaos" among staff at her school. "We were really excited, and now of course you're getting the same rumors — that they're going to fire everybody and you're not even eligible to go back to your school because there's not going to be a contract to protect you. So, it just crashes the morale."

The current professionally negotiated agreement covers everything from salary and benefits to teacher working conditions to procedures for resolving grievances. A five-page draft of the new proposal, which the district made public after Ross leaked the information, indicates it will be limited to salary and benefits alone. Nonetheless, if a new contract is negotiated successfully, it would mean the LREA will at least continue to exist as a bargaining partner with the district. Considering the current contract expires at the end of October either way, and considering the state's Republican leaders are no fans of organized labor, the union has little choice but to play ball.

That placed Koehler on the defensive the next day when addressing rank-and-file members at an LREA meeting that attracted over 400 concerned teachers.

"We're not all in the same place," she admitted later that week. "A few people were disgruntled or discouraged. I respect the right of people to dissent and I always will, because believe me — I've dissented many times. ... But the overwhelming majority [of members] feel that we must make decisions in a way that support our children and families without sacrificing what we're doing to ensure that students have the resources that they need to be successful."

Koehler explained what's at stake for the union. "A school board or district can agree to [either] negotiate with a particular entity or have a Personnel Policy Committee. When you have a negotiated agreement, you are bound to follow it. When you have a PPC, the school board is under no obligation to follow that recommendation.

"Kurrus made it abundantly clear that his choice is to negotiate with the people who have been working for 50, 60 years in the district. He wants to keep continuing the discussions with us. He has said this time and again — that he believes in the teachers of this district. ...  Do I believe him to be genuine? I have no reason, as of today, to not think so."

Kurrus would not comment on the substance of the negotiations, but he said, "You've got to start somewhere. ... We'll negotiate in good faith in hopes of finding some common ground. ... It's my understanding that the union wants to proceed under [the negotiating terms provided by] the existing contract. I'm perfectly happy to do that."

John Riggs, a Little Rock business leader who long advocated for the state takeover, said Kurrus is sincere in his respect for the teachers union.

"He's come to the Chamber [of Commerce], said, 'Hey, listen — this is going to take all of us, not just the business community.' There are some business types that would just say, 'If you just get rid of the union, everything will be great.' Baker has maintained since day one that the union is not the problem. And I agree with him. The union is not the problem. It's the contract, and some of the archaic things in there."

But Joyce Elliott said Kurrus was making a mistake by limiting the scope of the contract to economic issues. "Anywhere in the U.S. where schools are doing well, there is meaningful input from the staff. ... It's hard work to get it done, but it works," she said.

She fears that the new contract will play into the hands of those who would like to privatize the district. "I don't think [Kurrus] is all about furthering that consciously. ... [But] I think unwittingly, or maybe by dictate, he's playing a part in that role by the position he's taken with employees."

Ross said he leaked news of the contract negotiations because "people deserve information," but also acknowledged the LREA faced an existential threat if it pushed back too hard. "The tactical question is whether you keep a union without any teeth ... or do you force the state to destroy the union? ... Sometimes it's better to go down fighting than to sit there and take it." (Ross is not an LREA member.)

The Hall High teacher said she was "skeptical at this point if they're even going to negotiate. ... I think they're going to say, 'Well, we really, really tried to negotiate with the teachers' and then in October, it'll be over and they don't have to do anything. When the contract runs out, it's out — they're off the hook. I think that's the plan."

The west and the rest

Sensitive as the contract negotiations are, an even more contentious question is on the horizon: the recently renewed push to build a secondary school in West Little Rock.

Gary Newton is president and CEO of the Walton-funded group Arkansas Learns and the city's most visible advocate for new public schools on the west side of town, whether traditional or charter. He's leading an email campaign urging Kurrus to consider investing in the 245,000-square-foot Leisure Arts building, near the intersection of Cantrell Road and Chenal Parkway.

LOBBYING FOR CHANGE: Gary Newton pushes for a West Little Rock school. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • LOBBYING FOR CHANGE: Gary Newton pushes for a West Little Rock school.

"It could be purchased and converted for half the cost of a projected middle school, without raising taxes. It's adjacent to property already bought by the district. With one stroke, the district could trend toward positive enrollment for the first time in years. It could be open for 2016."

Newton said he and other West Little Rock residents would be open to hearing about other buildings around the district that could be used for a similar purpose, but, "If it doesn't happen, then charters are really the only public education solution for a place that doesn't have secondary education."

Data from the district, Newton said, shows that 61 percent of fifth grade students in the LRSD's three West Little Rock elementary schools (Terry, Fulbright and Roberts) leave LRSD in sixth grade — presumably departing for private and charter schools. The loss of those students deprives the district of needed funds. Districtwide, the percentage of kids leaving between fifth and sixth grade is 24 percent, he said. To Newton, that's clear evidence that parents on the west side of the city have been neglected by the LRSD and have no acceptable options for middle and high school.

The operative word there is "acceptable." Much of West Little Rock is zoned for Henderson Middle School, one of the academically distressed campuses. It also happens to be 94 percent black and Latino, and 89 percent of its students come from low-income homes. Although Central and Parkview, the district's two high-performing high schools, are filled beyond capacity, its three high schools in academic distress are not. That leads back to familiar, acrimonious chicken-and-egg debates about race, class, fear and flight: Are middle-class parents choosing not to send their kids to Henderson because it's a failing school? Or is Henderson failing because it's been spurned by the middle class of the city, which is largely (although certainly no longer uniformly) white?

Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), the civil rights attorney who has for decades fought legal battles on behalf of African-American children in Pulaski County, sees any investment in a new West Little Rock secondary school as carving out an enclave for more affluent families at the expense of the poor. He rejects the idea that LRSD must necessarily find a way to attract and retain the middle- to upper-class families that have left the district over the decades.

NOT COMPROMISING: Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) says the takeover was an injustice. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • NOT COMPROMISING: Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) says the takeover was an injustice.

"You don't really need them," he said. "I'd like to have them come, but ... why should black kids give up their rights to equal protection in an effort to appease white people who don't want to be around us? ... You have more white kids [residing] in the LRSD than you have black kids. If they all came [to LRSD schools], they'd be able to have a middle-class majority ... but they want to be a dominant majority."

"When West Little Rock is vilified as white flight," Newton said, "you're cutting off the very people who are predisposed to be in public education, who want to be in the district, who are hungry for public education. They're demonized as something they are not. That's no way to build a community. That's no way to build a district."

Walker also had harsh words for Kurrus. "Remember, he was on the [Little Rock] school board until 2010. Now, the state board in its takeover talked about the 'generations of failure' and the responsibility of the board during this time. And then ... to turn the situation around, they get somebody who was partly responsible for the problem.

"The primary thing that Baker was concerned about then was building schools in West Little Rock and seeing to it that parts of Central and ... other schools in the west ... remained viable and attractive to that part of the population that was 'easiest to educate.' ... And you know what that means; it's a euphemism for race."

However, Kurrus seemed cautious about immediate investment in a new West Little Rock school when asked by the Times.

"Yes, it needs to be considered, but only in the context of a larger plan," he said. "We have facilities needs all over this school district — hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of needs — and I don't think you do anything based on email campaigns or the arguments of upset people. We need to come up with plans of actions that make sense for everyone and satisfy the needs of the community as a whole."

Damaged trust

Keenly aware of the need to build trust within the community, Kurrus is also actively seeking guidance from the Civic Advisory Committee, a citizens group established by the state board to provide a forum for community input post-takeover. The superintendent has asked the CAC to weigh in on several weighty questions facing the district, including the potential closure of some elementary school buildings and a proposed redrawing of district lines within Pulaski County. Either of these moves would significantly change the face of the district.

In theory, the CAC is intended to act as something like a school-board-in-waiting — but with no formal authority, its role is unclear. The group seems divided between those who want to cooperate with Kurrus in his outreach to the community, and those who feel his state-sanctioned authority is illegitimate.

"I think it's promising that we have been asked to go out in our communities, to get feedback about the goals and questions we're addressing, and to come back and give our advice," said Dionne Jackson, one of the committee co-chairs. A resident of West Little Rock, she's also a former LRSD teacher, a graduate of Hall and a parent of a student in the district. "Personally, for me, it's about owning the fact that the LRSD is more than one section of Little Rock. It's not my zone against an East Little Rock zone. It's about us thinking what's best for this district."

Joy Springer, who was the Zone 1 representative on the LRSD board before its dissolution and now sits on the CAC, is not so sanguine.

"If we're not going to be taken seriously in our recommendations, why is there a committee in the first place?" she asked.

"Right now, I don't think anybody knows where LRSD is going. ... The state Department of Education wants everyone to think that everything's fine. That everyone's happy. That's not true." When asked what Kurrus could do to take the district in the right direction, Springer replied, "Recommend to the state Board of Education to put the [local] board back, and let us do what we were elected to do."

To Springer and other takeover opponents — including Jim Ross and John Walker — the state saw LRSD governance as broken exactly because political power was vested in the hands of an African-American majority (bolstered by a white ally in Ross). When Springer and Ross won election in October 2014, they argue, the local board gained a majority that for the first time would truly prioritize equity. They feel they were on the brink of delivering real change in the district: Among other things, the local board approved a plan to move forward with construction of a school in West Little Rock, contingent upon simultaneous construction of a school in the city's largely black and Latino Southwest quadrant. Then, less than a week later, local control was dissolved by the state board.

The local board's plans should be treated with the same skepticism as the state's — for example, the facilities proposal would have required voters to approve a millage increase, a very long shot — but it's also impossible to know what the elected body actually might have accomplished if it hadn't been removed. From the perspective of Springer, Ross and Walker, the takeover was a racially motivated affront to democracy.

But there are also those in Little Rock who fully opposed the takeover yet feel that advocates of public education now must deal with the reality of the situation — and that means working with Baker Kurrus, one way or the other.

"It's hard to honor sometimes that a decision was made that was not defensible," Joyce Elliott said. "But the purpose of the Civic Advisory Committee is not to rehash why and how the district was to be taken over. I can understand it's frustrating, but the purpose is to give the best advice possible to the person who's the superintendent." At the same time, she said, the CAC should hold the superintendent accountable as much as they're able. "They should be very vocal about the big questions."

Bill Kopsky, an LRSD parent and the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a grassroots progressive lobbying group, agreed. (Kopsky is also an occasional columnist for the Times.) Though he believes the takeover was wrong, he said, "I think that if the public school community remains divided and sort of disenchanted, then that makes room for people ... who have a set of ideologically driven strategies. ... The only way to push back against privatization is to make public education work.

"It's true that school policy in this district has been controlled by an elite few for a very long time, and that elite few have not served the district well. We do have more segregation now, and we have neighborhoods that have been abandoned. That's the kind of thing that raises distrust. But most of the parents I talk to — they don't care about who's in control of what. They want a good education for their kids.

"If you get enough people of good will to buy in, if you get to rank-and-file people in the city, I think you can work past all of those problems. ... There are too many players on the field to see this as a zero-sum game."

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