Education Commissioner Johnny Key made headlines last year when he hired Baker Kurrus as superintendent of the state-run Little Rock School District. Neither are educators by profession. Recently, he made headlines again when he declined to renew Kurrus’ contract and replaced him with Bentonville Superintendent Mike Poore.
The announcement led to public protests along with pointed questions from Little Rock legislators. Kurrus’ championing of the district had won him praise from many who first questioned his hiring. He had publicly argued that private charter schools could harm the district, putting him at odds with Key. Some say that disagreement must be the non-renewal’s cause. On April 19, the two held a joint press conference, and on April 22 Key released a statement saying, “I deeply regret my poor implementation” of the transition.
Talk Business & Politics interviewed Key in his office Tuesday, April 27. Answers are edited for length.
TB&P: Was Kurrus your first choice last year?
Johnny Key: Yeah, and he was my first choice because of what the district needed at that time. … We had an organizational challenge there. We also knew we had a fiscal challenge. … And at the time, we were criticized because, ‘Well, the state took over because of academic distress, and you’re not doing anything about academics.’ Well, when you’re building a house, if you don’t have a foundation that’s solid, and in this case the foundation was the organizational challenges and the fiscal challenges, it’s really going to be hard to move beyond that to do much. So Baker did exactly what we needed him to do.
TB&P: Was this always supposed to be temporary?
Key: Yeah, and ‘temporary’ being never really fully defined, but whether it’s going to be a year or two years, it just never was fully defined of what that was going to look like. But it was always in the back of my mind that once we kind of got a good foundation laid on the organization and the finances, we would have to see what we needed to do to really ramp up on the academic side.
TB&P: Why didn’t you renew his contract?
Key: I just knew my job was to move us forward. An opportunity to get someone of the experience of Mike Poore – not just his Arkansas experience, but his Colorado experience, the timeline in the context of the academic distress, you know, the five-year max statutory timeline, I felt it was necessary to move on that to get Mike in here to give him sufficient time to really make the academic changes.
TB&P: How serious was your disagreement over charter schools?
Key: It was professional. I wouldn’t call it serious. And it wasn’t a determining factor in anything. … The timing makes it look like it was, but it wasn’t. And Baker and I both, we agree that charter schools are here; they’re part of the fabric. His concern of the impact down the road that he was looking at, we just disagreed on the magnitude of that impact, and really that was it.
TB&P: So you’re saying that it wasn’t a determining factor. Did it play any role at all?
Key: I really don’t think so. … It was really all the way back from the beginning and that temporary nature of things, we got to a point where if I was going to make a move, I needed to make it now because this is the time of year that you make superintendent changes. If we’d waited six months, we’d have been into another school year. So really that was minimal as far as (being) involved in my decision making process. … The broader issue was, Baker’s got us where we need to be right now. Who can come in and take us to that next level?
TB&P: Couldn’t it wait a year?
Key: Timeline just doesn’t work. Waiting a year, we would have been about halfway through the statutory time period of five years. … We don’t want this to go the full five years on academic distress. We don’t want to have that full timeline. We want it to happen as soon as possible. … (Poore’s) background, he took a school that was on the Colorado academic watch list, in two years had it off the watch list. He’s been there; he’s done it.
TB&P: Were you pressured by outside groups? The Walton Family Foundation?
Key: No, no. You know, that’s the interesting thing. Mike is kind of labeled simply because of his location. He and I didn’t have any conversations about whether the Waltons support him or didn’t support him or whether they pushed a charter agenda or anything like that.
TB&P: Did the governor have anything to do with the decision?
Key: The governor did not, other than I went and told him what I was thinking. Obviously a move of this magnitude, I keep my boss informed. He had a lot of questions. I gave him the background, gave him the information, gave him my reasoning, and he was satisfied with that, and said to move forward.
TB&P: It just seemed like Kurrus was kind of blindsided by this.
Key: It certainly wasn’t the intent to blindside him or anything like that. We’ve had conversations all the way back to a year ago of the temporary nature of, not his role, not his involvement, but the actual position of superintendent. All I have to say is very positive things about the work he’s done because he was so intense and passionate about bringing success to LRSD. From day one, I’ve said, ‘I want you engaged. We’ll figure out how that looks and what kind of role that is.’ And this week, he and Mr. Poore will get together face to face and have some time and they can kind of explore what that looks like.
TB&P: Is there anything the public doesn’t know that no one’s asked you yet?
Key: Hmm. Let me think about that a second. … I guess, Steve, the one thing that is assumed that no one really asks directly is some conspiracy of dismantling the LRSD. That’s kind of some of the narrative that’s out there. And that’s just absurd. This administration, my team here, what we understand is a strong Little Rock School District is good for the whole state.