On January 28, 2015, the Arkansas State Board of Education voted 5-4 to take over the Little Rock School District, at least in part due to the academic distress classification of six (6) of the district’s 48 schools. The State Board disbanded the district’s community-elected school board, and weeks later, the district’s superintendent, Dexter Suggs, resigned when his doctorate was withdrawn by Indiana Wesleyan University amid allegations that he plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. Though there were some legitimate justifications for the takeover, at least in my opinion, the community’s trust in the State’s ability to effectively manage the district was understandably weak. The whole situation reeked of politics, with little regard for what was actually best for the district’s 25,000 students and families. At least that is what many community members believed at the time.
This attitude changed somewhat when, in May of last year, Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced the appointment of Baker Kurrus, a well-respected Little Rock attorney, businessman, and former LRSD School Board member, as the district’s next superintendent. Though a bold move – Kurrus has no formal educator training and the State Board had to grant a waiver of administrator licensure standards for the appointment to take place – Kurrus’s appointment and subsequent rule brought back a sense of hope for the district and its supporters. Kurrus knows the community and its challenges well, and he worked tirelessly to win support from the district’s teachers and parents. In the past ten months, Kurrus has addressed significant organizational problems within the district’s administration, created a budget that can sustain the district’s impending loss of almost $38 million per year from the end of a thirty-year-old desegregation settlement without resorting to major layoffs, worked with the local teacher’s union to establish a satisfactory teacher’s contract for the district, and began planning the opening of a new middle school and construction of a new high school, all while implementing systemic changes in the classroom to improve student achievement.
To say that LRSD has made great strides under Kurrus’s leadership is an understatement. That’s why it was a complete and utter shock to the community earlier this week when Commissioner Key announced that Kurrus would be replaced on June 30. Key gave no real reason, and even praised Kurrus’s work thus far. Community outcry has been loud and quick to follow. LRSD teachers, parents, and supporters must once again face a future of uncertainty, all with no explanation as to why. Of course, there is an explanation, and unfortunately, it’s probably much more about politics than about the needs of our students. Commissioner Key and Governor Asa Hutchinson, to whom he reports, support the reform agenda pushed by the Walton Family Foundation, which advocates for school choice and the promotion of charter schools. Kurrus hasn’t been so supportive of such. He spoke out against the expansion of charter schools in Little Rock last month before the State Board of Education approved an expansion of two well-known charter schools in central Arkansas, eStem and LISA Academy. He compiled the data to show that these charter schools serve a more affluent student body than traditional public schools, leaving behind a higher percentage of low-income students, minorities, English-language learners, and special needs students in the LRSD traditional public schools. This further segregates our schools and leaves LRSD with a much more challenging student population. Kurrus presented this data to the State Board of Education. It didn’t sway their vote, but it may have led to Kurrus’s removal. Key has publicly denied this is the case, but most aren’t buying it. Why else replace a successful leader who has worked endlessly to restore confidence and hope in a school district that has suffered from instability for far too long, if not for politics?
Kurrus will be replaced by Michael Poore, the Bentonville School District superintendent, who has also served in leadership roles in several Colorado school districts before coming to Arkansas. Regardless of his capabilities, Poore faces an uphill battle, as it will be no easy task winning the support of a community who feels betrayed by those it must count on the most.