Monday, April 18, 2016

UPDATED: Johnny Key dumps Baker Kurrus as Little Rock school superintendent; to replace with Bentonville's Poore

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 11:02 PM

BAKER KURRUS: To be replaced as Little Rock superintendent. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • BAKER KURRUS: To be replaced as Little Rock superintendent.
Baker Kurrus superintendent of the Little Rock School District, has been told by state Education Commissioner Johnny Key that he will be replaced. He is to be paid through June 30. 

Kurrus wasn't given a reason. He was merely told he'd be replaced. 

Kurrus confirmed my initial report based on multiple sources that he'd not be continued after June 30. He said he'd asked Key several weeks before to be sure to let him know if he planned for him to continue after his contract expired. He said he planned to continue working through June 30 and would work with any successor as necessary should an appointment be made quickly.

"I've done the best I can do," he said. "I've been so gratified by the way the team has worked together. That's the secret to accomplishing anything. It's about community and cooperation and communication  and collaboration. And I couldn't ask for a greater group of people — teachers and administrators — to work with."

Kurrus said he believed the district was making significant strides. Kurrus said he hadn't asked for a reason for Key's decision nor had Key given one. He declined to talk about what reasons might have entered into the decision, including whether his recent presentation of data about negative impact of charter schools in Little Rock might have been a factor.

Late Monday, it became apparent Key would announce Michael Poore as the new school leader. Poore announced his resignation late Monday as Bentonville superintendent. Key then issued this statement:

"Baker Kurrus' contract as the Little Rock School District superintendent ends June 30. I have asked him to remain involved in the ongoing work of LRSD. This could occur in a formal position through ADE or informally as he had been doing previously under former Commissioner Tony Wood. A new superintendent will be named tomorrow who will continue the work of moving LRSD toward academic excellence."

Poore issued a statement that he was taking job. He said Little Rock needed "strong, disciplined" leadership. He clearly hasn't met Baker Kurrus or he wouldn't have said something so stupidly inaccurate. Poore said his resignation is effective June 30, though Key said he'd be named tomorrow. Some ambiguity remains on transfer of authority.

Key named Kurrus as superintendent last May after the state Board of Education took over the Little Rock School District because of scores below a 50 percent proficiency rating at six of the district's 48 schools.

Kurrus, a lawyer and former Little Rock School Board member but not a trained educator, has moved with alacrity. He's replaced principals, entered a contract to open a new middle school in western Little Rock by next year and tirelessly visited every school in the district to identify needs. He's identified major budget cuts. He's come under some fire from John Walker, the civil rights lawyer who's long challenged the district, but Kurrus most likely fell out of favor with Key because of his outspoken challenge of charter school expansion proposals in Little Rock.

Kurrus amassed significant data that illustrates that charter schools have disproportionately taken higher income and white students from the district and that further growth of charter schools would likely do more of the same.

This did not sit well with Key, who as a state senator was a proponent in the legislature for the Walton Family Foundation's school "choice" agenda — unlimited ability for students to transfer from district to district, even for racial reasons; promotion of charter schools; anti-union, and so forth. Kurrus continued a contract with the Little Rock classroom teachers union, but it was dramatically reduced in scope from past agreements. He also advanced the Walton agenda by bringing Teach for America people into the district. They are typically bright young college students with little formal teacher training.

Kurrus had indicated to friends that there was tension in his relationship with Key.

It's widely known that Kurrus wasn't Key's first choice. He was turned to after a choice more in step with Key's ideology turned down the job.

Kurrus was paid a bargain $150,000 a year and said he didn't ask for a customary contract because he viewed the job as working at the pleasure of Key, who serves as the "school board" under the school takeover law.

It is likely that there will be a community outcry over the replacement. The district has made positive strides. Indeed, I'd just written a column for this week that shows — based on the latest school reports cards — that the district's middle schools (a prime target of Walton Foundation critics) have often outperformed the highly touted charter schools in the district.

One parent expressed shock at the news and wondered whether state officials feared a backlash. My response: The move symbolizes just how little the state cares about the Little Rock School District or the children it serves or the city itself. Key will serve his masters in Bentonville, from whence guidance for new leadership is coming.

Rumors in Little Rock school circles — admittedly not in Johnny Key's loop — speculated early in the day that key would tap Michael Poore, the current  Bentonville School superintendent. He's had some disagreements with his board.

He resigned his Bentonville job late Monday night at the school board meeting, to the surprise of his board.

Some local comments:

"I'm sick," said Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association. "He has led the district in a way that has restored faith and hope."

Bill Kopsky, a parent and political activist who led a political campaign against Walton-backed legislation to allow operation of the district by private management companies in 2015, said the news was "unbelievably disappointing." He continued: 

"The guy who replaces him may be a genius. But what Little Rock needs more than anything is stability and confidence and Baker was supplying that. Johnny and the governor have now torn that to shreds to wage their ideological war. And children will suffer. I don't know how parents can have any confidence now in the direction the district is taken."

Kopsky noted a political dimension. Hutchinson needs every Democratic vote in the legislature for his Medicaid expansion legislation and the day before word gets out that he's firing a popular and respected school leader for no good reason. It is my observation, not Kopsky's, that a couple of strategic Little Rock votes of protest might be in order. Some slow walking of that bill and the education budget could hardly be criticized given Hutchinson's piling of insult on injury on Democrats. Indeed, Sen. Joyce Elliott has already spoken out and a number of other legislators are raging behind the scenes.

Kopsky lamented that charter schools caused the change. It's a needless distraction from larger issues, he said, not to mention theres 's absence of research supporting superiority of charter schools. "It's an unmitigated disaster."

Mayor Stodola commented on Facebook:

"Can't believe Baker Kurrus' contract will not be extended. He has put LRSD on the right track. I have call in to the Governor to try and get this decision reversed. I predict major blow back from LR citizens if this decision is not changed."

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