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The race to watch 

The balance of power on the Little Rock School Board will be at stake Sept. 18 when voters in Zone 2 pick their School Board member.

Twelve-year incumbent Michael Daugherty – a member of the controlling four-member faction on the seven-member board — will face opposition for the first time since his first School Board race in 1995, when he beat Robert Willingham in a race in which only 631 votes were cast.

Anna Swaim and gadfly Drew Pritt, who are both white, have filed against Daugherty. Michael Nellums, who is black and a controversial middle school principal in the Pulaski County School District, filed at the last minute. Nellums is so unpopular with some school teachers in Jacksonville that he was expelled last year from membership in the Arkansas and National Education Associations.

The question may be one of simple arithmetic. Can Swaim turn out twice as many voters as Daugherty and Nellums combined?

Why twice as many? Because black people outnumber whites approximately 2-1 in the zone, bordered roughly by Markham, Asher, John Barrow and Woodrow Street. We should wish for a race in which the electorate wasn't divided along racial lines, but the odds, based on recent history, don't seem promising.

Swaim, communications director for the Arkansas Forestry Association, has a resume that's almost a template for cross-cultural appeal, however. She's president of the PTA at Rockefeller and will have another child in Carver, both elementary schools on the east side of town.

Swaim lives in the integrated Broadmoor neighborhood, a working class subdivision near UALR. She's worked on the city Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission and participated in the Healing Racism Institute. She's worked in the United Way and on the group established to improve the neighborhood around UALR, hardly a sanctuary of privilege.

Asked what she'll say to people who might be inclined to vote on a candidate's race, she responded evenly: “That's their privilege. I trust the voters of Zone 2 to consider candidates on their merits.”

Swaim has told me she has no interest in revisiting Superintendent Roy Brooks' departure — “the best thing to do is move ahead.” Other good things: She says she favors collective bargaining for teachers and, on merit pay, she likes the Teacher Advancement Programs at Stephens and Rockefeller, bonus plans that are not as test-obsessed as those ordered up surreptitiously for several other Little Rock schools by the conservative publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Significantly, Swaim opposed mediation of John Walker's appeal of the ruling releasing the Little Rock School District from federal court supervision. Daugherty sponsored that process, approved in a 4-3 vote split on racial lines.

Swaim, a Fair High School, Hendrix College and UALR graduate, speaks words crafted for the current polarized state of affairs.

“When the board was meeting to discuss Dr. Brooks' future in the district, my sons and I went into the packed board room wearing stickers that said, ‘Kids Come First.' People asked me which side we were on. When I explained, ‘Neither, we want what's best for kids,' they either looked confused or asked me for one of the stickers. There was room then, as there is now, for a middle ground.”

She'll have to overcome nearly institutionalized distrust in the black community to pull some of those voters into the neutral ground with her.

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