Education department releases draft memo for local control of Little Rock School District

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 337 views 

Little Rock “community schools” would be administered with the help of Community School Partnership Alliances, and the state would not recognize the Little Rock Education Association or any other entity as teachers’ sole bargaining agent under a draft memorandum of understanding released Tuesday (Oct. 29).

The document by the Arkansas Department of Education’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education was created after the Arkansas State Board of Education voted Oct. 10 to return the district to local control and allow patrons to elect a new school board in November 2020.

In a statement released by ADE, Secretary of Education Johnny Key was quoted saying, “This draft will serve as a starting point for the State Board’s ongoing discussion of the next steps for releasing the Little Rock School District to local control. It is very likely that the document will change as the State Board members and the Mayor’s Office have an opportunity to review the proposal, discuss the proposed ideas, and consider public input.”

The State Board of Education voted to take over the Little Rock School District in January 2015 when six of its 48 schools were deemed by the state to be failing. The school board was dissolved, and Key assumed its duties. In July, the State Board of Education approved the creation of a Community Advisory Board whose seven members were recommended by Key. After almost five years under state control, eight Little Rock schools scored an F in state accountability reports released Oct. 9.

The draft memorandum says the Community Advisory Board would remain in place until a local school board is elected in November 2020. At that point, the board’s duties would transfer to the locally elected board. The board would be composed of nine elected members from nine zones.

The draft says the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would work with the district to establish criteria for it to exit Level 5 – Intensive Support, the state’s highest level of involvement. The State Board would decide when the criteria have been met and place the district into Level 4 – Directed Support.

This remaining state control provision is a source of contention with vocal parents who have advocated a return to local control. Social media posts from several leaders of parent and teacher coalitions objected to the initial proposal.

Ali Brady Noland, a parent with children in the district, argued on her Facebook page that the state is being deceitful in its use of the phrase “full local control.” She characterized it as “the elected board won’t have any real authority, and this is actually indefinite state control.”

According to Key’s memo, as long as the district remains in Level 5, the State Board would approve all employment decisions related to the school district’s superintendent and would not recognize any sole bargaining agents for teachers. The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act would remain in place.

The draft memorandum was released two days before the Little Rock Education Association’s contract with the district ends Thursday. The LREA is the collective bargaining agent representing teachers and rumors abound that a potential strike may be planned.

LREA’s president, Teresa Knapp Gordon, has created a GoFundMe page to raise funds “to provide support for members in the case of a collective job action.” As of Tuesday night, it had raised $5,640 of its $50,000 goal.

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore sent a letter to district employees warning that those who participate in a work stoppage are subject to termination under the district’s professional negotiated agreement. Poore has received approval from the Department of Education to increase salaries for substitute teachers from $90 to $180 a day.

The memo calls on the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Little Rock School District, and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott to establish a community schools model supporting schools, with those entities to decide which schools receive that type of support.

Policies for each community school would be created with help from a Community School Partnership Alliance. CSPAs would have a member from the Community Advisory Board, a representative from the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, and a representative from the city of Little Rock. The CSPAs also would involve community members, school staff and parents.

The school district and the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education would set the district’s budget and the budget for those schools with a Community School Partnership Alliance. The locally elected board would approve the budget, with disputes settled after an appeal to Key.

The draft says the CSPAs will determine a school’s mission, vision and strategic planning while working to “identify and confront policies, practices, and school cultures that keep students from diverse backgrounds from achieving equitable outcomes. It will also work to utilize the assets of the entire community and to invest in a whole-child approach to education.”

CSPAs would recommend personnel and student polices, the school calendar and school day. These must be approved by the Community Advisory Board, with the CSPA able to appeal to Key if a request is denied. Each CSPA would decide how school success will be measured in addition to the ADE’s existing Every Student Succeeds Act school index and letter grade.

The draft can be read here. Those wishing to comment can send an email to ade.lrsdfeedback@arkansas.gov.

In other news, social media posts have indicated that some students are planning a protest Wednesday that will conclude at the Capitol. Poore released a letter to parents Tuesday saying, “While we encourage civic engagement, this protest is not a sanctioned school event.”

Late Tuesday evening, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr. issued a statement regarding Key’s working draft.

“Today, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) released a working draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on returning local control to the Little Rock School District (LRSD). The City of Little Rock is only party to an agreement to create a Community Schools Model (CSM) for LRSD’s most challenged schools. The working draft MOU released today does not include the City of Little Rock’s plans for CSM because, as we’ve previously stated, we are interested in hearing from the community about needed wrap-around services at low-performing schools. As community forums are planned, we will announce how the public can attend and participate.

“The City of Little Rock will continue its meetings with the ADE and LRSD to discuss the next steps for development of a CSM. Those next steps are: creation of a student needs assessment; plans for community engagement meetings to hear from parents and residents about student needs outside of the classroom (as mentioned above); and data analysis in neighborhoods where struggling schools exist. I look forward to our future discussions to make the necessary improvements so we can establish a world class education system in our city.”

Editor’s note: Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief Roby Brock contributed to this story.

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