After tax vote, what next for Little Rock School District? | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

After tax vote, what next for Little Rock School District?

Posted By on Wed, May 10, 2017 at 8:42 AM

click to enlarge KARK
  • KARK
The rejection of a property tax extension for the Little Rock School District was broad and deep yesterday. So what next?

People on both sides called for a healing of the obvious division that exists in the community.

As I said last night, disengagement with the Little Rock School District undoubtedly accounted for some of the negative vote. But I also think the 10,000 voters were unusually engaged in issues underlying this election — both those with a desire to improve facilities for students at whatever cost and those who thought the plan poorly designed. The opponents of the tax also were motivated by a deep unhappiness about state takeover of the district and the state controllers'  conflict of interest in wanting more money for the Little Rock schools it's running while encouraging unfettered creation of charter schools that drain thousands more students from a district that is generally serving children well.

I was disappointed to read Gary Smith, leader of the pro-tax campaign, describe the vote as a win for charter schools. That's so only if, as opponents feared, State Education Commissioner Johnny Key is as bent on destruction of the conventional Little Rock School District as he seems to be and will use this vote as a pretext to further punish supporters of local control. If true, a vote against giving him the key to taxpayer treasure was correct.

click to enlarge MIKE POORE: In retreat, an apparent pullback from proposed new high school. - KARK
  • KARK
  • MIKE POORE: In retreat, an apparent pullback from proposed new high school.
I was disappointed, too, to read Superintendent Mike Poore say the vote could delay construction of the new Southwest Little Rock high school by a year or even more. That was not the message sent during the campaign. He even raised questions about the entire project, a breathtaking break of faith with people in the district if true. From the D-G, emphasis supplied:

"To make those numbers work, you just can't have it happen all of a sudden. It probably pushes it back at least a year. I still don't know if that is totally the direction we want to go. There are so many needs that impact learning environments. I think we need to take our time and evaluate some things. Opening the high school in 2019, that falls off the radar in my opinion."
But, yes, some tough decisions must be made. Poore had figured $8 million a year was available in existing cash flow from the property tax to pay on new debt. That money should be available for building improvements, pay as you go, not debt service. Former Superintendent Baker Kurrus had a plan to move forward on high school construction without a tax vote before state Education Commissioner Johnny Key fired him for charter school opposition. Perhaps he could contribute some ideas. Some other operational expenses will have to be cut, no doubt.  Poore hasn't cut as deeply into administrative and other expenses as Kurrus had planned. Time to re-evaluate that before delaying a promised new high school. And, no,  no one should expect reopening schools already scheduled for closing. And they shouldn't be surprised by further cutbacks in the future.

Division? We have it.  Black neighborhoods in the majority black district — shorn of a  majority black school board in a state takeover campaign led two years ago by some of the same people asking them for 14 more years of tax payments — went overwhelmingly against the tax.

In a cluster of 15 precincts in central and Southwest Little Rock, predominantly black (and also including some large Latino neighborhoods), the vote margin ranged from 71 to 95 percent against the tax, mostly on the upper end of the range.  At the Adult Education Center at 4800 W. 26th, the vote was 83 to 6, just to give you an idea.

But it was beaten just about everywhere, including in pro-tax, pro-school neighborhoods such as Hillcrest. Only a handful of precincts favored the tax — at the Fire Station in Heights, Woodlawn Baptist Church and a handful of precincts in Northwest Little Rock. Even the voting place on Taylor Loop, near the popular Roberts Elementary, gave it only 52 percent approval.

There was no elation from those who opposed the tax. A statement from the No Taxation Without Representation Committee said it still believed the short-term renovation program wasn't the best plan for the district. But it said it, too, wanted first-rate facilities.

Today's result does nothing to change the fact that students and families deserve to know what lies ahead for a generation, not a few years.  ....

Now, this election is over for all of us. Whether pleased or disappointed with the result, there is work to do beyond this election, starting with the state board of education returning LRSD to local control. Further, there are wounds and divisions that existed long before this election that must be acknowledged. We must do the hard work to get to know one another, to bring neighborhoods together, to heal our city, no matter the differences.
A statement also was issued by nine state legislators who cover the district (all Democrats and including no west Little Rock Republicans.) The nine — Joyce Elliott, Linda Chesterfield, Will Bond, Fred Love, John Walker, Warwick Sabin, Charles Blake, Clarke Tucker, Fred Allen — said the statement was prepared before the election outcome was known.
We were on various sides of the Little Rock School District millage extension campaign, which culminated yesterday. Some of us ardently supported the extension, others vigorously opposed it, and some did not take a public stance. However, we are united in our view that the time has come for an elected, empowered school board to return as the decision-making body in LRSD, working in collaboration with Superintendent Mike Poore to create a truly vibrant school district. In contrast, we feel that ongoing lack of local control only serves to deepen the divide in the Little Rock community and to restrict the promise of the Little Rock School District. 
They urged the state Board of Education to set a date for a school board election, no later than 2018. This will require a change of heart based on a recent meeting. They said the big turnout for a May special election showed strong community engagement.

More people than ever before are ready to step up to run for the school board, to vote in school board elections, and to work to support their schools. It’s time for a return to local control. 
An opponent of the tax extension who toiled in the grassroots campaign (outspent 10-1) told me last night that he'd talked to hundreds of people before the election and believed state Department of Education "incompetence" was a driving factor in the debate, not general antipathy toward the school district.  "This was an anti-charter school, anti-state takeover vote and all the BS they have done since takeover."

The question of the hour then: Will the state "BS" continue? Given that the Walton family laid out $440,000  less than two weeks ago to buy a vacant former Little Rock school building on Battery Street for a new charter school before a state panel has even reviewed the charter school application suggests to me that the fix remains in at the state department. This is, by the way, an application that a Walton spokesman justified by a supposed absence of decent education options in the neighborhood. It is served, within walking distance of the proposed school, by at least five Little Rock district schools, a couple of them magnets, none in academic distress.

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