The filing period for Little Rock School Board candidates would be July 27 through Aug. 3, 2020, for elections that would occur during the Nov. 3 general elections under a proposed timeline released Friday (Nov. 1) by Education Secretary Johnny Key.
The timeline follows a vote by the State Board of Education Sept. 20 to adopt a framework transitioning the Little Rock School District to local control. That process includes the election of a nine-member zoned school board.
Under the timeline, the State Board on Nov. 14 will review a proposed map along with the board member zone establishment process. In December and January, the district’s Community Advisory Board, which was created by the State Board, will review the draft map and host public comment sessions. It would suggest revisions to Key in February. In March, a map approved by Key would be submitted first to the Pulaski County Board of Election Commissioners and then, once approved, to the Pulaski County Clerk’s Office.
Candidates could begin collecting signatures May 3, 2020, with the candidate filing period occurring from July 27 through Aug. 3. After the Nov. 3 election, any necessary runoff elections would be Dec. 1.
The State Board 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. After almost five years under state control, eight Little Rock schools scored an F in state accountability reports released Oct. 9.
The board also voted Oct. 10 to stop recognizing the Little Rock Education Association as teachers’ collective bargaining agent as long as the district remains in Level 5 – Intensive Support, the state’s highest level of involvement. The contract with the LREA ended Thursday, Oct. 31.
According to the draft timeline, school board members’ zones would be drawn based on 2010 census data and then redrawn in 2021 after the 2020 census, if necessary to maintain balance.
The Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office helped develop the zone options. The draft timeline said planners attempted to make zones as compact as possible, contiguous, and encompassing rather than splitting communities of interest. To the maximum extent possible, zones were to be bounded by geographic and other visual features, and were to match other electoral boundaries such as city wards. Zones could not extend beyond the school district’s boundaries.
Planners created three options and recommended one based on existing election precincts over options meant to create the lowest population variance or based on school attendance.
The draft notes the challenge of creating compact zones, so planners attempted to develop options following legal precedents. The draft said that “a plan cannot perfectly balance contiguousness, compactness, communities of interest and substantially equal population between each zone. For example, creating a plan with an extremely low variance of population between zones pulls at the guiding principle of communities of interest because neighborhoods might be divided to achieve near perfect population balance. In contrast, preserving a clustering of neighborhoods might tug too far at the principle of substantially equal population.”
Robert Coon, a political consultant with Impact Management Group, said the election will be important in setting school policies, but, “it remains to be seen how big it becomes from a contested battle royale in the political world.”
That contest could pit traditional school advocates, who have argued for an immediate return to local control along with protecting teachers’ collective bargaining rights, against reformers who might support changes such as increasing the number of charter schools.
Coon said the traditional advocates’ potential voters will have more intensity at the grassroots level. Traditionalists’ potential voters more likely have children in school, so they are more plugged in and more aware of the issues. Reformers’ pool of voters are more likely to be disconnected from the school district. They may have already taken their children out of public schools and likely won’t be sending them back. Reformers will have to convince those voters to become interested in the election.
“I have no doubt that folks in (the traditionalist) camp will have a lot of activity, a lot of excitement on their side and really kind of view these elections as their Waterloo, if you will,” he said. “I think the question remains to be seen what the other side is going to bring to the table from a competition for these seats.”
Hotly contested races could occur in some zones, such as those in midtown and in west Little Rock, Coon said. It remains to be seen how many zones are competitive, and whether the newly drawn lines create swing zones.