LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore is considering significant budget cuts, while facing criticism for not making quick enough improvements. To win support for his plans, he is trying to reach as many people as possible.
Monday night, that led him to the quarterly meeting of the League of Women Voters in Pulaski County.
He gave a presentation about the challenges and opportunities facing the Little Rock School District, then answered questions from the audience.
A couple of people attended the meeting because they thought special education would be the focus, and they described their challenges in getting quality instruction for students with special needs. One woman, a lawyer who advocates for children with learning disabilities, described the district special education as a “disaster” and a violation of students’ civil rights, leading to a tense exchange with Poore.
The meeting was held at Hall High School, which is one of the five distressed schools in the district. The number of schools with low test scores was the reason the state took control of the school district.
Poore said he wants to create special teams within the district office to help those schools improve.
“And so they share with us, ‘here’s our plan, here’s our barriers,’” he explained, “and then we knock out those barriers that day, say, ‘here’s what we’re gonna do, here’s what you’re gonna do, here’s what we’re gonna do to make sure that what Hall needs, we get done.’”
The difficulty will be making those improvements while cutting the district’s budget. The district had received tens of millions of dollars in state funding as part of its desegregation settlement, which ends this year. Some preparations had already been made, but Poore said that an additional $10 million will need to be eliminated before the 2016-17 school year.
He told the meeting that he hopes to present what he called a “menu of cuts” by next month.
“We’ll actually present a set of options that exceed that whole $10 million. I’m not gonna nail myself down, but let’s just say it’s $16 million, and then we would whittle that down to $10 million that makes the most sense.”
Poore said that he would seek community input about those options before a final plan is presented in January. One possibility that has been mentioned is shutting down one or more schools, which Poore admitted would likely be on the table. But he said personnel changes would likely be the biggest part of any budget proposal.
“When you have 80 percent of your budget tied to people, now you’re impacting people’s lives,” he stated, “and that’s a challenge.”
While he ponders budget cuts, Poore told the audience that he also has plans to improve the quality of education in the district, too. He said there needs to be a greater focus on middle school students, since they are the most likely to leave for charter schools. He also mentioned a desire to offer universal preschool.
“All of our students end up performing better than those who never took part in our preschool program,” he claimed. “Doesn’t matter what home they came from.”
“When they go to our preschool, it’s almost like we’ve already worked to shrink the education gap that we’ve always talked about, because our students do so well in this structured preschool.”
Poore acknowledged that the perception of the district needs to improve, and he hoped meetings like this would make a difference.
“Are the things that I’m saying resonating with you at all?” he asked. “Are there things that you can say, ‘wow! I can see some things here that I really like.’ There some things that concern you? You should be concerned about some stuff! Okay?”
“But there’s also a whole bank of things that we can say, ‘here’s what we can build on, here’s what can do, here’s what we can go do together.’ Have we got tough stuff? Oh, yeah! We got tough stuff to go deal with. Every one of those things are big challenges. And the only way that you tackle big challenges like that is, you go work together.”
Poore said he would present the options for budget cuts in October, and then have a final answer by January.