Inside the campaign to take over the Little Rock School District: A publisher, a congressman, a Walton lobbyist, the chamber | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Inside the campaign to take over the Little Rock School District: A publisher, a congressman, a Walton lobbyist, the chamber

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 2:03 PM

click to enlarge schoolemail.jpg

I wrote yesterday about attorney John Walker's reference to the campaign by powerful Little Rock business interests to push the state Board of Education to take over the Little Rock School District, which ultimately happened in January. Walker sued yesterday to overturn the action, claiming racial discrimination.

He called it a conspiracy. Conspiracy or not, it was an intense and organized campaign by powerful business people, with help from UALR, a congressman and the publisher of the state's dominant news organization, to abolish the majority black Little Rock School Board. 

Among the exhibits submitted by Walker with his lawsuit are e-mails dug up by Walker through the Freedom of Information Act..

The image above is from e-mails in the account of state Board of Education member Jay Barth, a Hendrix professor and Times columnist, who was lobbied by neighbor and friend Marla Johnson, the Aristotle executive who led the Chamber's takeover team. Though he ultimately voted against the takeover, Barth had some sympathy to the cause and laid out some points of concern in correspondence with Johnson. In these notes, Johnson reveals now-departed Superintendent Dexter Suggs' apparent willingness to let distressed schools become charter schools, but the school district would continue responsibility for cafeteria and transportation, quite a benefit if an outside charter management group came in.


He suggested a scenario by which he possibly could support takeover. It prompted the response above from Marla Johnson. In her note, Hussman is Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has been a constant critic of the district editorially and has had news columns heavily influenced by his school "reform" ideas. Gary Newton is the leader of two nonprofit organizations, Arkansas Learns and Arkansans for Education for Reform, funded primarily by Walton Family Foundation money. They pay Newton a combined $150,000 and pay tens of thousands more to political consultants who lobby for the Walton agenda at the legislature and elsewhere. Newton is a strident critic of the school district; has helped organize a predominantly white charter middle school in Chenal Valley that skims Little Rock students, and today on Twitter raised the question of adequate legal representation for families in majority white Northwest Little Rock who want a new middle and high school because they don't want to attend the existing (majority black) schools elsewhere in the city. An attorney believed to be backed by Walton money has participated in school "choice" fights all over Arkansas and I wonder if he might make an appearance here. John Walker questions standing for an intervention in his federal case.

The e-mails also include the one below from Michael Pakko. an economist at UALR. His note indicates he produced statistics helpful to the takeover movement (in this case about potential reshaping of districts in the county) with guidance from U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Little Rock Republican. (UALR has since announced it would be home to expanded eStem charter school operation that could ultimately take 5,000 students out of the Little Rock School District.) It is addressed to Jay Chesshir, director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

click to enlarge pakkoemail.jpg

click to enlarge IN NEED OF WORK: Some of the photos submitted as evidence about the poor condition of Cloverdale Middle School.
  • IN NEED OF WORK: Some of the photos submitted as evidence about the poor condition of Cloverdale Middle School.

Walker's exhibits also include photos illustrating the poor condition of schools in distress, such as Cloverdale, (above) compared with the sparkling majority-white Roberts Elementary in northwest Little Rock, which Newton is demanding be served by a new middle school as well.



click to enlarge ROBERTS ELEMENTARY: Better shape.
  • ROBERTS ELEMENTARY: Better shape.



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