To illustrate, at one point we learned that between July 1995 and July 1996, the Little Rock school board had taken 109 recorded votes on disciplinary appeals. In many smaller districts in Arkansas during the same period, there were probably very few such votes, leaving the time for board members to devote to other school business. Although the LRSD is far larger than most, its governance structure is very similar to that found in other districts across the state. This familiar structure is to a considerable extent prescribed by state law.
Governance refers to who has the authority to make decisions in which areas, how they receive that authority, and when and how they may exercise it. The governance structure of a public school district includes voters, school board, superintendent, other central administrative officers, principals, teachers, parents and others. (School districts are instruments of state government to achieve the state's constitutional duties in education, so a number of state officials are also part of the larger governance framework within which school districts operate.)
School district governance deserves to be the topic of a separate study of its own. However, this appendix includes information which sheds light on some governance issues and on possible responses to them.
1. Charter Schools. In 1995 the Arkansas General Assembly adopted legislation that authorized and provided for charter schools in Arkansas. This action revealed a legislative intent to make it possible for individual schools to break out of existing governance arrangements. To date no charter school has been established although interest has surfaced in a number of school districts.
The word "charter" has multiple definitions. Probably the definition most people would assign to the word would be something like "a document setting forth the basic principles of an organization" such as the "Charter of the United Nations." A second and lesser known definition of the word "charter" is a "special privilege of exemption." Both definitions are meaningful to charter schools as they have been authorized by Arkansas school law.
The 1995 state law which authorized charter schools will transfer real power to the school site. A charter school will operate in a special, independent fashion including the freedom to set its own learning targets and means of achieving those targets. An annual public report card on its goal achievement must be produced by the charter school. Parents and teachers must actively shape the educational plans and annually evaluate student learning in charter schools.
The charter of each school is the plan for learning devised by the faculty and parents of the children enrolled in the school. The charter must be democratically devised (2/3 of all parents must approve and 2/3 of all teachers must approve) and staged for a three-year period. The aim of the charter is to decentralize authority and encourage experimentation and risk-taking. Teachers and parents who know their students and children better than anyone else will presumably be in a position to plan and put into practice learning approaches which are most effective.
Part of the charter may include exempting the school from state or school district policies if it is believed that waivers will better suit the objectives of the school. Such waivers must be specifically stated in the charter.
Proof that academic goals have been achieved will be measured by performance tests agreed to in the charter. Charter schools which can show their students have mastered academic skills can expect to renew their charter every three years. If achievement falls short, the charter will be revoked and the independence of the school will be lost.
Anyone can start planning for a charter school. In addition to the academic plans supported by teachers and parents, the school building itself can be leased from the district. Finances for the charter school will flow from the school board in the same dollar amount per student as regular schools in the district. The chief difference, of course, is that teachers and parents in the charter school will have contractually agreed to meet performance goals and must do so in return for their budget allotment and independent status.
Charters for charter schools are written as a three-way contract between the school, the local school board, and the Arkansas Department of Education. The state board is the final charter-granting authority.
2. Elected School Board President. Little Rock School District board members are elected individually from seven separate geographical areas. At present, school board members each September elect one among themselves to serve as president for a 12-month term.
The people of Little Rock recently decided to elect the mayor citywide and make the position separate from other positions on the city board of directors. A similar step could be considered for the school board. Then the board president would be elected citywide as an additional member of the school board. This is done in a number of school districts across the nation. It potentially provides an additional source of leadership with a broader citywide base. A school board president elected directly by the people could also deflect some political pressures away from the school administrator. Unlike the superintendent who may or may not be regarded as a familiar neighbor or acquaintance, an elected school board president would be viewed as a member of the community.
3. Changing the Date of School Elections. Changing the date of school board elections could result in a higher level of community interest and participation. At present school elections are mandated by state law to be held on the third Tuesday in September. In the LRSD, school elections every September pass almost unnoticed by the general public. Voter turnout on school election day (with no property tax millage on the ballot) will not likely surpass four or five percent of the electorate. The near invisible nature of school elections translates into a vacuum of public debate about important school issues. Without debate and without even nominal voter participation, the important connection between constituents and elected officials which is so necessary in a democracy is likely to stand somewhere between weak and nonexistent. Moving school elections to the traditional first Tuesday in November would do much to raise the badly-needed visibility and community stature of school board members. November is the time when voters are most alert and receptive to candidates and their messages about community issues.
4. LRSD Divided into Three Semi-Autonomous Zones. (Sizable citywide or communitywide school districts offer the advantage that schools in poor areas and schools in wealthy areas share the same tax base. Such districts, however, may be unwieldy from an administrative standpoint. The paragraphs which follow were an internal concept paper the Task Force considered while evaluating the significance of governance issues in the Little Rock School District. It contributes to the centralization versus decentralization debate an intermediate or middle option for school organization and operations.)
The geographical and demographic issues relative to the size of the LRSD may be such that they act as impediments to the success of the district in terms of achievement, parental involvement, discipline, and finances. An examination of an alternative district governance model may bear fruit in terms of addressing each of these areas of concern.
Geographically, the district is so large that the current administrative structure of two elementary assistant superintendents and one secondary assistant superintendent is untenable from a span of control perspective. Assistant superintendents may drive 40 or more miles just to visit each school for which they are responsible. Additionally, such a division artificially separates schools one from the other on the basis of their grade designations. That is to say that elementary, junior high, and senior high principals do not normally work closely together nor is their a shared vision for the students whom they had, have, or will have in common as these students move from K-12. To maximize school effectiveness, schools should work together, and communication among them should be ongoing.
Additionally, students who progress through elementary school together or junior high school together are generally thrown into a new milieu without a cohort of friends when they move to the next educational level, either junior or senior high schools. To reduce these problems and to better address the issues and concerns stated in the desegregation plan, it is suggested that the LRSD be subdivided into three area districts or subdistricts or zones. Each district should be drawn in a way to ensure the maximal possible racial balance, to minimize busing, and to guarantee that elementary schools, two junior high schools, and at least one senior high school are all encompassed by the subdistrict. The assistant superintendent responsible for each subdistrict will then be responsible for all levels of student education.
Each area superintendent, as the assistant superintendents will be called, will be charged with final appeal authority in matters of curriculum and discipline within that zone. Each will be assisted by an area site council composed of patrons, one elected patron from each school within the area zone. The school board of the LRSD will continue to function as the policy body and will be charged with the role of selecting the superintendent, hearing final appeals by employees recommended for termination, and overseeing the business functions of the district. The superintendent will supervise the area superintendents and will be responsible for all business and financial functions of the school district.
Each area superintendent will be housed in a school within the area and will have a staff consisting of a secretary (executive assistant) and two instructional supervisors, one in reading/language arts and one in math/sciences, and one person trained in testing and evaluation. It shall be their responsibility to assist principals in developing and implementing instructional programs and to assist the area superintendent in the work of assessing the effectiveness of instructional programs. Any request for financial assistance or staff development which cannot be handled within the area will be forwarded to the superintendent in the central office.
Recommendations from area superintendents relative to curriculum, instruction and the hiring of staff (with the appropriate recommendation of the building principal) should be approved by the area site council and forwarded to the school district's Board of Directors for final approval.
Under this model, the areas and the schools therein will be more accountable. Student progress can easily be measured and tracked. Parents will be involved in decision making. Principals at all levels will work more closely together. Students can be schooled closer to home and the amount of busing necessary will be diminished thereby saving dollars which can be put into instruction.
Magnet and interdistrict schools would continue to operate and would be schools of choice that students might select on a lottery basis. They would be competing directly with the area schools for students. Students electing to attend magnets or interdistrict schools who are selected for such schools would provide their own transportation to centers within the zone and be transported to the magnet of interdistrict schools from those centers.
Incentive schools would continue to exist but as schools specifically funded, staffed, and designed to meet the needs of the individual students within the school population. Principals and teachers would be assigned and hired based on proven ability to address the needs of the student population and to work effectively within the school community. They would be schools of choice where parent involvement was enhanced.
Each area would house, in addition to elementary and secondary schools, at least one early childhood center and a parent center. Additionally, it is strongly suggested that area superintendents hire aides for schools from the neighborhoods whose students are served by those schools and that those aides be afforded bus transportation to ride to and from school with the students whom they know and whose families they know. It is also suggested that principals be accorded discretion in the hiring of custodial services, that they be given a fixed amount of funding from which to hire such services and that they be held accountable for building climate and cleanliness. Further, any money not expended can be put into support for instruction or to meet other building needs.
Additionally, programs in adult education would take place within the junior and senior high schools during the school day as well as at the existing adult education center in the evenings. The presence of adults in the building can help enhance school climate and also provide motivation to students. Each high school and junior high school could be subdivided to house several schools within the same building thereby guaranteeing a closer learning community for students.
Finally, it is suggested that principals, in consultation with the area superintendent, be allowed to request a waiver from the state relative to the hiring of staff in order to maximize instructional dollars to meet the needs specific to their buildings. Again, principals and area superintendents are to be held accountable for the results of such decisions and consequent actions.
This new model has the potential to lessen costs, increase parental involvement, enhance focus on the student, empower teachers and principals, and address the issues which have been part and parcel of the desegregation plan in Little Rock since 1989.
The model in no way represents additional costs nor does it represent additional administration. In fact costs may be saved, as the point of services for the delivery of curriculum is brought closer to the students while support services are centralized.