The Arkansas Board of Education met Wednesday to consider a state takeover of the Little Rock School District (LRSD). The state board opened the floor for a public hearing where parents, students, community activists, and teachers made their pleas to allow the school board to remain in control. Despite their best efforts, the board voted to take over the district around 3:30 p.m., passing the motion 5-4. Now, the staff, students, and parents of 48 schools are left to wonder what lies ahead.
Chatter over whether the district would move into the hands of the state began mid-December 2014 as resident and community leaders argued that not much had changed in the years the district had been trying to fix its issues.
With desegregation funding running out, the district would soon need to cut $37 million to stay solvent. Last year, Arkansas classified an elementary school, two middle schools, and three high schools as academically distressed after fewer than half of the students scored at proficient levels on the tests. Two-thirds of the district's 30 elementary schools were scoring in the lowest 25 percent on math exams.
The district saw 22 new superintendents in the past 32 years with an average tenure of less than one-and-a-half years. Leaders agreed the district couldn't accomplish much with that trend, but stayed optimistic that the new team—headed by second year superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs—would succeed.
The new superintendent had served as the Chief of Staff for Indianapolis since July 2012. His prior experience included the positions of Chief Information Officer/Superintendent, Director of Operations and Communications, and principal in the 31,000-student Indianapolis district.
Despite Suggs' experience, the new ideas implemented by his team, and a newly elected Board of Education, residents and community leaders still argued that not enough had changed.
In addition to the state board agreeing to take over the district, they decided Dr. Suggs would be kept on an interim basis over the nearly 25,000 student district.
"We will continue to put children first, continue to move with a sense of urgency and continue to engage all sectors of the community. It will take all of us working together to transform the Little Rock School District," Suggs said in quote released by LRSD. "We have a great deal of responsibility, and there will be no excuses. Failure will not be an option."
In the press conference held Thursday, Suggs said it was not his place to take an opinion, and the only thing that had changed is his current position. He added that he doesn't know just how long that interim position will last.
"The term 'takeover' has been used as a negative connotation," said Suggs. "I look at it as something positive…To our community, we need your help. Maintain our enthusiasm. Please hold me accountable."
Suggs has met with Tony Wood, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, to discuss what the partnership between his office and board will involve.
For now, Suggs will run all major decisions through Wood. If the two can work together to get 51 percent of their students at proficient in math and literacy for a composite three years, the takeover ends.
"If I'm here for the next four years, five years whatever that may be," Suggs said. "You will get 110 percent from me."
"When Little Rock is successful in the removal of their schools from academic distress, then we look forward to the community electing a board and going forward. I don't know the time frame that will be required to reach that point," said Wood.
Former board member Jim Ross said there will be no appeal to the decision. He is planning to form a student union and continue to call out what he feels to be bad decisions.
How can the community can still get involved with the district now that school board no longer exists? UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson told THV11 that he feels the community is just going to have to wait and see what opportunities are provided for public involvement once the dust settles.
LRSD board members have called the takeover devastating, and told THV11 that they will not give up. Former board member Jim Ross, who has only been on the board for about four months, has been very vocal about the decision.
"They will take our schools apart. They will sell them. And, black children and Latino children will begin to suffer at a greater level like they do in Detroit, like they do in Chicago, like they do in Memphis," he said to THV11 cameras Wednesday. "We will fight. We will not go down over the vile decision by these vile people."
Ross said later that Little Rock Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs, who had only been on this job for 18 months, is a good man.
"He's a young, new superintendent learning his job," Ross added. "I believe he's being set up. The people on the state board who voted for the takeover—it's important to know their background. They are all related to or heavily involved in the charter school movement. They are all funded by people who are funding the charter school movement in Little Rock."
He added that what has happened in similar, poor communities around the country is that the states have taken away local control and have privatized the local schools.
"What every drop of research shows is that when you start privatizing these schools, elite and middle class children get great schools. Poor children, which make up the majority of the kids in Little Rock, get very poor schools. That's what I think is going to happen."
When asked if he thought things could have improved if the Little Rock District School Board had been given more time, Ross exclaimed that yes, it could have.
"I agree with everything the state was saying, I believe there was a financial crisis. I believe there was an educational crisis, and I believe there was a personnel crisis. The same bureaucrats have been in the school district for 30 and 40 years all these times we've had these problems," he continued. "We came in with four African-American reform members and one white member who were willing to vote to make sure we could change all of that inequality. We had a plan in place. We were making good progress. We were working with the superintendent."
His message to parents and students is that at the end of day, teachers have to continue doing what they've been doing—to work with children and make sure they're providing the best education they can.
"Students need to go to class and work hard to make their lives better, but as a community, we can't allow this to stand. We have to continue to speak out, and we have to be a loyal opposition to Dr. Suggs. When he makes mistakes, we need to call him on it. And, we need to say to the state that this is unconscionable what you've done," he concluded.
Former LRSD School Board Member Joy Springer tried to make sense of things, just a day after the state takeover. Though Springer doubted the state will give much weight to what a community advisory group has to offer, she's still committed.
"The decision had already been made," Springer said."I will be there at those community meetings, and I will continue to voice the things that I have done for the last 20 years to ensure that that takes place."
Studies show that issues within the Little Rock School District have been a concern for decades. One of those studies, done nearly 20 years ago, took an in-depth look at the school system starting in 1957 when the crisis at Central High happened.
"We had gotten a lot of feedback at the university from community leaders that said 'We want the university to help us address some major community issues,' Anderson said of his study that began in the 90s. "The studies and surveys we did—the message that kept coming back was that the schools were issue Number 1."
You can read the full study here: http://on.kthv.com/1yRkGN7
The result of the project was a strong conviction that the nothing short of community-wide action could make difference.
"What is needed is an open-minded group of people, people with no axes to grind, who are broadly representative of the people of the city and are connected in ways that will permit their work to flow back and inform others in the community," the study suggested.
Anderson feels that while a state takeover in the short run may be helpful, in the long run the community is going to have to address the problems in the public schools.
"The schools have an extremely big job today because they are micromanaged," Anderson explained. "People at every level want to give extensive instructions on how they ought to do their jobs and then hold them accountable for it."
In the end, Anderson does not believe that the state takeover will answer all of the problems.
"I think everyone has the same goal in mind. We certainly need to have a school system that provides quality educational opportunities for every child, and we're not there yet," Anderson concluded. "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.'"