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Sen. Joyce Elliott tried to free LRSD from state control Monday, but her bill didn't pass. Brian Chilson

The state took over control of the Little Rock School District in January of 2015 and has yet to hand it back over to full local control, even though the five-year deadline for doing so has passed. On Monday, state senators on the Education Committee voted to allow the open-ended guardianship of the district continue.

Senators voted 4-3 for Senate Bill 314 by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) that would spring the district from the state’s colonization. But the bill needed five votes to pass. Yes votes came from Elliott, Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) and Sen. Charles Beckham (R-McNeil), a proponent of local control.

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Both Elliott and Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, pointed out that if you look at the districts the state has taken over because of fiscal or academic distress — Pulaski County Special School District, Helena-West Helena, Earl, Dollarway, Pine Bluff and LRSD — a pattern emerges. State takeovers are happening almost exclusively in predominantly black and Latino districts that suffer from under-investment in their schools and attacks on their decision-making, said Fleming, a white woman whose organization represents teachers across the state.

The state snatched LRSD from local control because six of the district’s 42 schools were in academic distress. State law allows for such takeovers, but does not mandate them. The state Department of Education could have taken over only the six failing schools, but chose to take on the entire district.

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Exit criteria for state rule weren’t revealed until four years and four months after the state took over. The bill Elliott presented would have set clear guidelines for how and when school districts could regain autonomy. The bill set a strict five-year outside limit and said a district could be returned to local voters if an elected school board is in place.

Sen. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) is not on the Education Committee but is a graduate of Little Rock Central High and testified in favor of returning the district to local control. The law the state invoked to take the district over specifies that within five years of takeover the district has to be annexed, consolidated, reconstituted or returned. SB 314 clarifies that existing law so districts can know for sure what to expect. “It’s either five years or it’s indefinite,” Tucker said. He pointed out that LRSD is going on its seventh year under state control, and so if there are any qualifications the district is failing to meet, the state is responsible for that.

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Greg Adams, a member of the newly elected Little Rock School Board, testified if favor of the bill that would cut LRSD loose. Adams was on the board in 2015 when the state took over. He thought then and continues to think that it was a bad decision. It was a drastic and painful step that eliminated representative democracy at the local level, he said.

And while Little Rock voters elected a school board in November 2020 that’s now in place, the board’s power is limited. The board lacks the power to hire and fire a superintendent and bargain with unions. Adams bristled at the “guardrails” the state put in place to limit the power of the school board. “The state continued to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law by not allowing the new board to govern,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key was the only person to speak against SB 314. The Little Rock district needs to have a balanced budget to get clear of the state, he said, and the budget right now runs a deficit. COVID-19 hit the district hard, and student numbers fell this school year as families opted to home school or grew frustrated with pandemic-related protocols.

But the district was taken over because of academic concerns, not budgetary ones, Adams said. And the district’s current budget was approved by the state Education Department, which still had budget authority at that time, Adams said.

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“The budget that Mr. Key mentioned would have been approved under state control,” Adams said. “It is not the fault of LRSD. It seem to me that it is an unfair situation that the state’s decision of what to do with our budget last year now hampers our ability to escape state control.”

Education Chair Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) seemed to take up Key’s charge, challenging Adams and Fleming about their testimony. She pushed back on Adams’ argument that the current financial situation in LRSD is not the district’s fault. The LRSD would have been facing financial problems anyway had it not been taken over by the state because the district was set to lose federal desegregation money that made up a sizable chunk of its annual revenue, Irvin said.

“If there are fiscal distress issues it has nothing to do with the deseg money. That’s been gone for a long time,” Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said. The reasons the state gives for not returning full local control just keep coming, she said. “This has been going on ad infinitum.”

Irvin repeatedly pressed Fleming on whether she would ever support the state taking over of any school for any reason. Fleming repeatedly declined to answer, saying the bill under consideration was about schools escaping state takeover, not falling into it.