LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Little Rock’s push to reclaim control over its public schools remains in limbo as Arkansas officials weigh whether the district has done enough to improve six schools found to be failing.
The city’s Board of Directors approved a resolution earlier this week asking the Arkansas Board of Education to allow Little Rock to hold elections for school posts. Mayor Mark Stodola is preparing to make a similar request to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
A school board overseeing the 25,000-student district was dissolved under the state’s takeover in January 2015 after it was deemed that six of the district’s 48 schools were in academic distress.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key said in a statement that Little Rock schools had shown “great progress,” with three of the six schools removed from the classification and noticeable improvement from the three others. However, Key stopped short of saying whether the state will allow the election of a school board anytime soon, as the city requests in the resolution approved Tuesday.
“The purpose of the city’s resolution is to express to the Board of Education that is in the city’s best interest for our growth and vitality to have the school system returned to local control with a locally elected school board,” Stodola told The Associated Press.
While the decision on local control rests with the state Board of Education, Hutchinson appoints the education commissioner. Under the current arrangement, that person essentially makes the decisions for the Little Rock district in the same way a local school board would.
An Arkansas law taking effect in August specifies new guidelines for the way in which schools are graded and establishes options for school districts under state authority.
The new law more clearly outlines how the state can return local authority to a school district, including appointing or electing a new local school board upon the recommendation of the education commissioner. It also streamlines the process that once included several community hearings about a school district’s progress.
Key expressed confidence that the law would help “accelerate the momentum” for Little Rock students and expedite the district’s return to local control.
Hutchinson told the AP that he wants to see the restoration of local control, but that timing is important.
“I’ve always supported the return of LRSD to local control, but the timing should be based upon the academic achievement of the schools and not an arbitrary time line,” Hutchinson said.
Local residents have been adamant in their desire for local control being returned ever since the district was taken over by the state, and their distrust of state leadership over the district was part of the reason why voters rejected a proposal that would have paid for a new high school and other improvements.
Opponents of the plan to extend a property tax increase to pay for improvements said they were wary of giving money to a school district that hasn’t had an elected school board in over two years.
The district says the tax extension would’ve raised $160 million for the improvement projects.
Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliott said at the time that everyone wanted better facilities for district’s students, but a comprehensive, sustainable long-term plan is needed.
The rejection of the proposal happened as the school district is set to lose millions of dollars in annual state desegregation aid.
The desegregation payments that are set to end in 2018 stem from a 1982 lawsuit the school district filed against the state and its neighboring districts, alleging state policies were still creating racial imbalance despite changes made since 1957. To settle the lawsuit, Arkansas agreed in 1989 to give the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County special school districts additional funding for magnet schools and allowing student transfers. The payments have totaled nearly $70 million annually.
A judge signed an order in 2014 to halt the payments to the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts by June 30, 2018.
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