LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - The Little Rock Board of Directors has no control over the school district, but decisions about schools have a big impact on the city as a whole. So, the board members asked Little Rock’s superintendent to explain a couple of big decisions that are in the works.
Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District, gave a presentation and answered questions for approximately 90 minutes during the board’s agenda meeting Tuesday. He outlined the budget challenges stemming from the end of state-funded desegregation payments, which led to the decision to close Franklin Elementary, Wilson Elementary, and Woodruff Preschool.
Three directors mentioned their disappointment that more had not been done to assess the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods of those schools, especially the area near Franklin Elementary.
“A vacant school would be the worst thing that could happen to us there,” said Mayor Mark Stodola. Stodola mentioned that the city had invested in several projects in that neighborhood, which sits just east of UA Little Rock.
Poore acknowledged that closing schools is not a popular solution to the district’s budget problem, but said cutting from teachers and staff was not an option, after that was done in previous years.
“What I felt, as your superintendent, is a sense of urgency,” he explained, “urgency to make sure that we move forward, to impact our kids, and I want us to be a better district next year.”
Members of the audience did not get to speak during Tuesday’s meeting, but several made a silent statement, holding signs bearing the names of the three schools.
While Poore needs to trim $11 million from next year’s budget, he is also seeking more money in the form of a debt extension, which would raise $160 million over 14 years to pay for building improvements. Public opinion of the debt extension is mixed and several directors alluded to the district’s poor reputation as a hindrance to growth.
“It looks to me like we’re asking you to fight a battle with one hand tied behind your back,” said director Dean Kumpuris.
The directors also seemed split on the debt extension, which will come up for a vote May 9, but understood the need to modernize several schools.
“You can’t have a school that doesn’t have lights, that doesn’t have windows, that has a leaky roof,” Kumpuris stated.
Poore added that something as simple as maintenance, which he considered long-overdue, would help students learn in a visible way.
“When you think about improving air conditioning, think about windows, you think about lights, you think about things that would improve the air flow in buildings,” he explained, “two to three percent is probably realistic in terms of improvement on achievement by having appropriate learning environments.”
Improving test scores at the remaining three schools on the state’s distressed list would allow the reinstatement of a local school board.
“Hopefully, whatever happens, we’re going to come together and continue to work for the best Little Rock School District we can have,” said director Kathy Webb.
Poore and Stodola both said they oppose Senate Bill 308, which is currently being debated in the state legislature. It would give charters schools the first right of refusal to buy any vacant or underutilized public school buildings. Poore promised to find uses for the closed schools, as well as any school that is closed in the future, so charter operators cannot get them.
“And conservative folks typically espouse local control,” he said, referring to the Republican-controlled legislature. “Well, let us have local control!”
Poore announced that the school district would take public suggestions for ways to re-purpose Franklin and Woodruff. Proposals are due to Darral Paradis (firstname.lastname@example.org) by March 31. District officials will then hold public meetings to gauge the desirability and viability of each suggestion.