The Little Rock School District's new day: What of the union? And a legal challenge? | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Little Rock School District's new day: What of the union? And a legal challenge?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 6:32 AM

click to enlarge IN CHARGE: The state Board of Education declared the Little Rock School Disrtrict a failure yesterday, but kept its leader Dexter Suggs  in place. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • IN CHARGE: The state Board of Education declared the Little Rock School Disrtrict a failure yesterday, but kept its leader Dexter Suggs in place.

No elaboration arrived in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's coverage of the state's takeover of the Little Rock  School District of something that puzzles me.

If the entire district is a failure, why did the takeover motion specify the retention of the man in charge of the district for almost two years, Superintendent Dexter Suggs? He is interim superintendent under yesterday's 5-4 takeover vote.

Asked directly by takeover advocate Vicki Saviers for ways the board had blocked his ideas on improving schools, Suggs named none. He merely said he doubted their long-term commitment.

Suggs declined to talk to reporters yesterday beyond issuance of a brief prepared statement. He'll meet press this morning. Benji Hardy will be on hand.

Another question not addressed yesterday is the fate of the Little Rock Education Association's relationship with the school district. The union has long served as bargaining agent for teachers. Can that contract be canceled? It is with an entity that no longer exists.

There is a precedent. When the state took over the Pulaski County Special School District the state ended recognition of the contract with the union that represented Pulaski employees. The unions sued. They lost.

Since the organized campaign to take over the district focused much of its criticism on the teachers union, it seems easy to predict history will repeat.

UPDATE: My sources say that, for the time being, contract with the union remains in place and Suggs and the union president have been talking. Negotiations have begun on a contract for next year and, for now, that process continues.

The district soon must come up with a plan for the advent of loss of state desegregation funding. The biggest part of the budget is people. So it's easy to predict seeing the contract, even if continued, as a place for savings.

I spoke briefly with Chris Heller, attorney for the Little Rock School Board. He had questioned the state's ability under the law to take over the entire district on account of low test scores in six schools. His clients no longer exist. His  future relationship with the district (the Friday Law Firm has provided counsel on all issues, not just desegregation and the current takeover):

Too early to tell what the long term situation will be but, for now, we've been entrusted with a number of cases and we're not going to miss any deadlines

I couldn't make contact last night with state Rep. John Walker, the civil rights lawyer, who'd told me in advance of the meeting he was prepared to sue over a state takeover. The Pulaski case on the union isn't directly on point, but in that case the Supreme Court made a point of noting the state's broad power — and ultimate responsibility — for local school districts. A federal question is also possible, however. He could argue that race was a motivating factor — a desire to unseat the majority black school board. Racial arguments are less in favor in federal courts these days, however. The prevailing political sentiment seems to be that the U.S. is past its racial problems. The vast racial disparity in test scores — not just in Little Rock but everywhere — might be contrary evidence.

Jim Ross, the firebrand new Little Rock School Board member, offered this comment last night decrying the vote:

The Arkansas State Board of Education, all appointed by Mike Beebe (legacy?) just brought us a step closer to making good on Faubus's dream of a permanent two-tiered education system. One for poor people (majority African American and Latino) and one for the privileged (mostly) white.

The reform community beat Chamber candidates in the last 4 elections, and seeing they could not win by democracy they bought 5 votes on the State Board and instituted a dictatorship today.

At the end of the day, we will keep organizing and fighting against this horrible machine of opression we call education in this city and state.

As for now though, you can find me next week at Henderson Middle School (if I'm allowed in!) volunteering with kids who are not doing well with their reading. 

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