Arkansas Takes Over Little Rock School District

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The Arkansas Board of Education has decided to take over the Little Rock School District and the district’s school board has been dissolved.

Current district superintendent Dexter Scruggs will be placed in an interim position and will be under the authority of state Education Commissioner Tony Wood, writes Dale Ellis of the Arkansas News. Along with these changes, a citizen’s advisory council will be created to give input regarding the needs and solutions for the district.

The board’s vote was 5-4, with Board Chairman Sam Ledbetter casting the deciding vote.

The state board decided on the takeover based on the performance of six schools in the district that were placed on a list of academically challenged schools. These schools were placed on the list because more than half of the students did not reach or exceed proficiency standards on state mandated tests in math and reading.

Before the board voted on the district takeover, the issue was deadlocked. A compromise was suggested that would create a union between the state board and the school district that would leave the administration in place. If the district did not make significant improvement, a provision would have dissolved the Little Rock School Board and removed the district’s superintendent.

Ledbetter said after the meeting that his vote in favor of a takeover was made because of the severity of the problem and the strong response needed to turn the district around. However, board member Jay Barth said:

“It’s my opinion that state takeover is a bit premature,” said Barth, “I thought there was the possibility of putting some things into place in the form of a partnership that had a high likelihood of moving academic achievement forward without disrupting the district.”

Supporters of the district, students, teachers, and parents, for the most part, pleaded with the board to wait. In spite of the problems, said many students, they considered the schools they attended to be safe havens, and added that test scores were not always the best measure to evaluate schools or districts.

As far back as 2008, four of the six schools were in year six of improvement programs because of academic distress. One school was in its seventh year of academic distress and was also on the list of fiscally distressed schools.

Three of the six schools are high schools, two are middle schools, and one is an elementary school. According to NewsOK, a judge in August signed an order to stop state payments which had been given to the district since 1989. In 1982, the district sued the state, making allegations that state policies created a racial imbalance in spite of the fact that changes had occurred since nine black teenagers had been escorted into Central High School by federal troops in 1957.

“It’s a dark past in our state but we’re so far past that,” Ledbetter said after the meeting. “It’s a diverse board and no vote in this board has taken place along racial lines.”

KATV’s Alexis Rogers reported that board member Jim Ross, who was not present for the meeting, said,”The democratic process was not respected.” He continued:

“We will balkanize this city, tear it apart like Detroit did. We will not stand down,” Ross said. “This is a tragedy in Little Rock. This is a tragedy for black children, it is a tragedy for Latino children, it’s a tragedy for poor children. What got protected today were the rich white schools. You need to report that as clearly as you can. Today Orval Faubus had a victory. We are going to keep fighting if it involves chaining ourselves to school doors.”

With the desegregation funding running out, write Amy Geswein, Marlisa Goldsmith, Macy Jenkins, and Dan Grossman, reporting for KTHV-TV, the district would soon have to cut $37 million to balance the budget, and the Little Rock School District with 25,000 students is the state’s largest district. In the past 32 years, it has seen 22 new superintendents – an average length of service of one and a half years — and such turnover has produced little progress for the district.

Ross says Suggs is a good man who has only been on the job for 18 months and is just learning the job. Ross went on to say that Suggs, in his opinion, was being set up.

The members of the state board who voted for the takeover are all related to or involved with the charter school movement in Little Rock. In similar poor districts around the country, he added, states have taken away local control and privatized local schools, which Ross says means that wealthy and middle class students get great schools and poor kids get poor schools.

Chancellor Joel Anderson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock believes that a takeover may help in the short run, but in the end, the community has to address the problems suffered by its public schools. Anderson said:

“I’m quite confident that the Little Rock Nine and the civil rights warriors of the 1950s would look at today and say, ‘This is not what we were working toward; we’re not there yet.’ “