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Drastic measures for Little Rock schools 

click to enlarge Little Rock School District buses outside of Central High School image
  • Adam Jones (Creative Commons)
  • Little Rock School District buses outside of Central High School.

A Democrat-Gazette article this week about progress in the Pulaski County Special School District prompts me to write further about something I've mentioned in passing on the Arkansas Blog.

It's time to think about radical steps for the Little Rock School District, including the possibility of state takeover. Current governance isn't working well and seems unlikely to get better.

A recent report from the federal court desegregation monitor said the Pulaski District, the only one of three in the county still under court supervision, is improving.

The district has managed to complete important school repairs. The test score gap between black and white students is shrinking, if still significant. The disciplinary rate for black students is improving, if still disproportionate. The district has bonded with desegregation lawyer John Walker on a proposal to pour $10 million into an academy at UALR aimed at at-risk kids.

All this from a district in fiscal distress.

How did it happen? The state took over. A dysfunctional school board was dissolved. Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell brought in Jerry Guess from Camden to be superintendent and he knows every bureaucratic and political in and out. He came from a district with desegregation experience. His heart is where the kids are. He'd have even struck a deal with the local teachers' union, but it overplayed its hand and got left out in the cold. That's given him even freer rein.

This brings us to Little Rock. It has a new superintendent, Dexter Suggs, who has been saying the right sorts of things. But he's been unable to form a consensus on the school board.

The sad paradox is as obvious as skin color. Suggs, a black man, overcame a difficult youth to become a top school administrator. Where we fail in schools today, we fail black males first. But Suggs can rarely muster support from the entirety of the four-person black majority on the seven-member board.

He must cut administrative and other expenditures to prepare for loss of deseg money. The black majority hasn't liked his ideas. He's been resisted on restructuring some remedial services. He wants to serve growing west Little Rock by building a middle school to pair with Roberts Elementary, but suspicion abounds in the black community. The same for his makeover plans for some failing schools, including one in Southwest Little Rock.

The teachers union also has struggled with Suggs, though its veterans' pay and health insurance benefits are the envy of many.

Settlement of the desegregation case has produced no public relations dividend for the district, abandoned long ago by many for private schools and now abandoned when possible by those offered the right kind of charter school option.

This is bad news. No schools can be repaired to the extent necessary, much less new ones built, without a tax increase. In a district that already has a healthy millage rate, this requires a dedicated community effort. I don't see it today.

If Little Rock can't work some failing schools off the state list, the district could be taken over and the school board dissolved.

Another Jerry Guess — even Dexter Suggs unbound — might produce the turnaround Pulaski has seen.

The Pulaski District soon will be shorn of Jacksonville and perhaps face future departures of Maumelle and Sherwood.

Might it be time again to talk of new district lines, with Little Rock becoming that part of Pulaski County south of the river, with the northern portion divided among Maumelle, Sherwood, North Little Rock and Jacksonville?

This is just thinking out loud. But it can't be less productive than the current stalemate on important issues in the Little Rock School District.

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