Editor’s note: John Burris is a former member of the Arkansas Legislature. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.
The Little Rock School District is back in the news again. I say it’s back in the news because it hasn’t been in the news for the first time in a long time, except for the things schools are supposed to get attention for. What a welcome change.
The leadership of Superintendent Baker Kurrus and Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key has helped stabilize the district after decades of turmoil and failed leadership. Last week, Kurrus was surprisingly not offered a contract extension beyond his soon-to-expire year. That decision was made by Key, the man who hired him. Reactions were immediate and harsh.
The biggest critics of Key’s decision are city leaders who have actually just contributed to the problems for decades, and the well-meaning participants who live with these decisions and try to influence change.
The first group takes all shapes and sizes. Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola stands out the most. Within moments of the announcement of Key’s decision, he took to Twitter to express his outrage and assured all those reading that he had a call into the governor to demand the rehiring of Kurrus. I’ve been told he had actually called a governor’s staff member, not the governor himself. Nonetheless, his tweet received dozens of retweets and favorites, so I’m sure the mayor was satisfied with the outcome of his statement.
A better reaction would have been to call the education commissioner and ask his rationale for the change, then offer support and guidance. After all, I’ve never seen Johnny Key tweet his outrage every time he hits a pothole on the drive home, or worse, when there’s the all too often violence and murder inside city limits.
Leaders should take deep breaths in moments of crisis, not fan the flames that make the problem worse.
The second group, the well-meaning bystanders, are left to deal with the problems caused when “leaders” take to Twitter too fast, or when they just focus on what’s good for them, not the kids. They’re teachers, parents and PTA members. They’ve been watching a school system struggle for decades and then lived through a state takeover.
Some I disagree with, like Senators Joyce Elliot and Linda Chesterfield. But their perspective deserves heavy consideration. Both worked in the school system for decades. Chesterfield even taught my mother at Pulaski East Junior High. She was still Ms. Pondexter then, but I suspect her personality and opinions were about the same as they are today. Even if I think they’re wrong most of the time, they’re not wrong all of the time. They represent an important group of people who pay the biggest price for failure.
And that’s the most ironic part about the outrage surrounding Key’s most recent decision. Most agree the district is moving away from failure, for the first time in years. The finances are stabilized. Contracts with teachers are largely resolved. Parents are more engaged and confident of the future. It’s fair to give Kurrus the share of credit he deserves for these improvements. His direct management greatly influenced the changes. But it’s even fairer to give Key his share, even if he refuses to accept it.
When he announced his hiring of Kurrus, most who are outraged now were outraged then. It was a non-traditional hire with a business background, not an educational one. A special exemption had to be granted by the State Board of Education. Key had the courage to request it, despite the protest of many who now see the wisdom of what he was doing.
Many of the same people largely opposed the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, after years of failed school board governance. That, along with Key’s subsequent leadership, laid the foundation for every improvement that has happened in the past year.
After being wrong twice, critics should be more cautious. They’ll likely be proven wrong again. When trying to decide whom to trust to make major decisions, it’s smart to trust the person who’s made the right decision before, instead of the ones who criticized it. A school board would have never had the courage to hire Kurrus. It would never have had the courage to fire him. I’ll trust the man who got us where we are, not listen to the cries of people who for so long kept us where we didn’t want to be.
A final touch of irony: despite all of the praise being heaped on Kurrus, no other school board in the state could hire him today. Educational bureaucracy has long controlled the licensure standards for administrators and teachers. The most successful business leader in a community can’t be tapped to turn around his community’s failing school. That’s wrong. A school board should be able to hire the leader they want for the job, and they shouldn’t have to ask the state for permission.
Those who sing the praises of Kurrus should lead the charge to ensure he and others like him can more easily work in other schools across the state.
They won’t, but they should, and that protectionist attitude and the refusal to put children first is exactly why Johnny Key is the right person to be making the decisions.