State Education Department's double standard complicates bond vote | Arkansas Blog

Friday, January 13, 2017

State Education Department's double standard complicates bond vote

Posted By on Fri, Jan 13, 2017 at 9:41 AM

REPLACEMENT NEEDED: A replacement for McClellan High School, which likely would be converted to a K-8 school, is a top priority in a coming school bond election. But what of control of that and other Little Rock schools in the future. The outlook is cloudy.
  • REPLACEMENT NEEDED: A replacement for McClellan High School, which likely would be converted to a K-8 school, is a top priority in a coming school bond election. But what of control of that and other Little Rock schools in the future. The outlook is cloudy.
The state Board of Education gave the expected approval of extension of permits for three open enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County.

Board member Jay Barth, part of the dwindling Mike Beebe presence on a board now solidly committed to the Walton-financed agenda to put an end to conventional public school districts, did raise questions about an unprecedented 13-year extension for LISA Academy and the continued approval of Little Rock Preparatory Academy, despite its persistent low test scores and, as Barth noted, lack of progress.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's report on the session indicated, to no surprise, that Board member Diane Zook rose up in support of LR Prep, where 17 percent of students met the proficiency level in language arts and 28 percent in math.

Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne said she would oppose a new hearing to review the school system, based on the fact that the elementary campus is working to meet both the developmental and academic needs of the pupils, and the middle school is showing academic gains.

It is very rare, she said, for any school serving young children with great social, emotional, psychological and physical needs to get a year's worth of academic growth in an academic year. If children have to receive a variety of "wrap-around services" to meet their developmental needs in addition to academic instruction, it would be "highly unusual" for children to make a year's worth of progress and achieve at their appropriate grade level, she said.
Barth took exception.
"When we have such persistent challenges for a school, no matter the student population it is serving, we have some responsibility if we take our accountability system seriously to do a review," he said.

It's a classic example of the double standard that exists as a matter of policy now at the state Education Department. Being a charter school means never having to say you are sorry. Being the Little Rock School District is another matter. Zook was among the most vociferous proponents of takeover of the Little Rock School District on account of scores short of proficiency at six of 48 schools.

The schools with the biggest problems in Little Rock serve the same type of student populations for which Little Rock Prep was given consideration — virtually all minority children from poor families and often with a variety of other needs, from severe disabilities to an inability to speak English. Little Rock gets taken over. The charter school is approved for continued independent operation.

The LRSD takeover vote was a close call given circumstances at the time. I wrote that I couldn't support a takeover plan that included keeping the incompetent superintendent then in charge. That didn't bother Zook and that's how the deal initially went down. Happily, a plagiarism scandal forced the ouster of the superintendent and what followed was solid progress under Baker Kurrus, fired by Education Commissioner Johnny Key for resisting the explosion of charter school seats in the Little Rock School District, and now Michael Poore. Poore is doing good work I think, by all appearances, but he won't buck Key. He emphasizes improving the schools is his only mission and that's the way to prevent bigger losses to charter schools.

The existence of many good schools in Little Rock didn't stem the drain in past years and I don't think it will now, not after years of disparagement by people like the Walton lobby and Zook and top Little Rock business people and the criminal disinterest on the part of city government. With seats for 7,000 students in LISA and eStem (helped in the latter case by interest-free loans from the Waltons and freebies from UALR), there's reason that some close watchers of education predict Little Rock will eventually be a 20,000-student, virtually all-minority district (with more students who speak English as a second language than white students). That will drop a budget already shrinking by tens of millions of dollars.

This grim outlook is all the more reason to be favorably disposed to the bond restructuring put on the Little Rock School District ballot in a special election in March.


I talked with school officials yesterday and finally got full information on the 12.4 mills in property tax currently devoted to construction debt. I've used inaccurate figures previously. It produces $40.1 million a year, Chief Financial Officer Kelsey Bailey said. Only $14.2 million goes to pay off bonds, which are due to expire in 2033. The overage (a result of rising property values against the amount needed to pay off bonds) is legally allowed to be kept by the district for operations. That's about $26 million a year. The bond refinancing will increase debt service by $4 million a year if $100 million in bonds are issued and more if the full $160 million are sold, another lick to a budget that is losing state desegregation money and losing $6,600 for each student (probably a couple hundred more next year for another drop of $1 million or so) it loses to a charter, private or suburban school.

The trick about bond refinancings is that, while they are sold as not being a tax increase, they mean millions in new taxes. This plan adds 14 years to bond repayments, or a continuing assessment of more than a half-billion in taxes, not counting the customary expected 2 percent annual growth in property assessments. Those are mills that would otherwise expire. The refinancing will continue at least $22 million a year in hidden support of school operations over that time, without which a lot more jobs would have to be cut.

I've never voted against a school tax millage in 44 years in Little Rock. Never. But I am thinking about it now. Johnny Key and the interests he represents hold peril for continuation of conventional public schools, answerable to an elected board, in the state's capital. I've asked for — and not been given — an assurance that there will never be a privately managed charter school moved into buildings built or renovated by tax dollars taken from taxpayers with no voice in operation of the schools. I've asked — and won't get — a pledge to stop the damaging charter school expansion in Little Rock, or at least a promise of accountability standards for charter schools equivalent to those imposed on the Little Rock School District.

Poore's argument is that the decision should be about the needs today of Little Rock schools and the children who attend them (a new high school in Southwest is the biggest ticket item). It's a powerful argument. But the vote is to spend at least $40 million a year through 2047 ($1.2 billion at a minimum) with no prospect that taxation will ever come with representation. Forces generally aligned with Johnny Key are lurking to turn the entire district over to private operators and to end fair employment practices for school teachers. It is not an easy choice.


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