NO LOVE FOR THE UNION: Education Commissioner Johnny Key says the district needs a freer hand to fire teachers. BENJI HARDY

State Education Commissioner Johnny Key met with reporters Tuesday afternoon to explain his rejection of a teachers union contract with the Little Rock School District, a move that has the Little Rock Education Association up in arms.

The LRSD has been under state takeover since January 2015, meaning Key acts as the school board for the district. Key said today he has directed LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore to present the union with modified language to its professional negotiated agreement, or PNA, that would force it to agree to a waiver of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.


That means the state labor law that provides due process protection for firing teachers in other Arkansas public schools would no longer apply to teachers at campuses in Little Rock that recently received a “D” or an “F” grade under a new accountability system. There are 22 such schools in the district, Key said. Other schools, however, would remain subject to the law, effectively creating two classes of employees within the LRSD.

The meeting, which took place on the third floor of the Education Department building near the Capitol, was not open to the general public. Department officials escorted reporters upstairs to meet with the commissioner. Two Capitol police officers were stationed near the lobby of the building.


Key told reporters that recently released school ratings for 2018 show there has been “insufficient progress in improving academic performance in several schools” in the LRSD. “The district needs greater flexibility to address staffing changes in the struggling schools than what the negotiated agreement currently allows,” he said.

Key cited high absenteeism among teachers as evidence that staff is the problem. “This is across the district — over half of the classroom teachers in 2017-18 were absent 10 days or more.” He acknowledged that the missed days could be caused by many things, including scheduling, school culture and professional development requirements.


But, he still implied that much of the problem was teachers taking too much time off. “I mean something has to give. … Look, if you’re not going to come to work, we’ve got to get somebody in those classrooms that will be there and can do the job and will do the job,” he said.

However, Key could not give any specific examples of the LRSD being unable to dismiss an underperforming teacher. He said district principals have “reported to me that there are situations where they need to make some moves but they’re hamstrung by the process.” When asked whether the fair dismissal act has hindered firings, he said he could only recall one example of a teacher (who worked in a pre-K) who sought protection through the fair dismissal process. She was later terminated, he said.

Key insisted that he wasn’t “bashing teachers” and noted that some principals or other administrators may need to be changed as well. He said he wasn’t concerned that creating two classes of schools with different standards of labor protection within the same district could lead to a difficulty in recruitment at the schools where the fair dismissal act did not apply. “No, I’m not, because there are teachers right now that are not members of [the union],” he said. “There would be protection, because there would still be a grievance [process] that’s in the PNA. … There’s due process.”

Asked whether the department would seek waivers for the fair dismissal act in any of the many other D and F rated schools around the state, Key said it would not, because the state board hasn’t taken over the majority of those districts. (The department is still evaluating what to do in the Pine Bluff district, which was only recently taken over.)


State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who listened in on the meeting, said afterward that Key’s plan will be devastating for morale in schools where it’s applied. A former teacher herself, she took issue with the assumption that teachers are the problem with struggling schools.

“The problem could be the principals, it could be the teachers … [or] it could be what we all know that it probably is: poverty and [lack of] opportunity and people who are marginalized to start with,” she said.

Key portrayed his approach to the union as a moderate approach. He noted that in an earlier state takeover of the Pulaski County Special School District (before Key’s tenure as commissioner), the district’s contract with the union was simply terminated, full stop.

“Look … for the last three years, I’ve had pressure to just do away with the union. Not even sign the agreement. Do like the state did in Pulaski County. I have willfully chosen not to do that, because with the leadership of LREA at the time, the work that they did with Mr. [Baker] Kurrus and the work that they did with Mr. Poore, I felt like we might get somewhere. But when I see these results that were released just a couple of weeks ago and understand that there is something else that’s missing and looking at the structures that are in place to move this school district forward, this is one of those impediments,” he said.

Key didn’t clarify who exactly was “pressuring” him to eliminate the union. Elliott suggested later it was business interests. “The people that have money, the people who have power …  I’m sure that’s who the pressure’s coming from to just get rid of that contract. Because it has long, long, long been one of [Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher] Walter Hussman’s issues to get rid of that contract.” Hussman is a longtime critic of the district and the teachers union. “And he’s not the only one. Because the Chamber of Commerce sees teacher contracts and negotiations of any kind — they see that as a problem, if anybody who works has those kind of rights,” she added.

When asked what responsibility the Education Department bore for the LRSD’s lackluster academic performance after running the district for almost four years, Key noted that there had been some increases. “But they’ve been inconsistent,” he said. Of the six schools that were originally deemed to be in “academic distress” — thus prompting the takeover — three were later removed from the list, Baseline Elementary and J. A. Fair and McClellan high schools. But, Key added, “they’ve slipped back and are struggling, which means that the improvements there, the gains, were simply not consistent.”

State Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock), who attended the meeting, noted afterward that those schools had slipped “on [Key’s] watch.”

Waivers to state education law can be provided by the state Board of Education, but the fair dismissal act is typically excluded from those waivers. However, a 2017 overhaul of the state’s school accountability statute — the rules and regulations for which have just been promulgated — allows an exception. The state Board of Education may now waive the fair dismissal act in districts classified as being in “Level 5 intensive support,” which Little Rock is in. That label replaces the old “academically distressed” label that originally led to the takeover.

The new law would seem to clear the way for the LRSD to ask the state board for a waiver to the fair dismissal law if it wished. However, Key explained, the Little Rock union’s PNA specifically states that the district must adhere to the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act. Thus, his desire for a new contract. Key is seeking language in the PNA that states the district and the union “agree to support” a waiver of both laws, but only for schools receiving a grade of D or F under the new school rating system.


Teresa Knapp Gordon, the president of the local union, said it would be impossible for the Little Rock Education Association to sign an agreement that stated the union’s support for waiving the fair dismissal act.

“We can’t do that. There’s no way we can do that,” she said after Key held his meeting with reporters.

The changes would help principals in the lower-performing schools making staffing changes moving into the 2019-20 school year, Key said. When asked whether they’d apply mid-year, Key said, “No … that would not be my intent at all.”

He also downplayed the extent of staffing changes that would actually occur. “I’m pretty sure that it would not be drastic. … I think it wouldn’t be used like a chainsaw, it’d be more like a scalpel,” he said.