Chapter Thirteen

Pathway Into the Future: Priority Issues for School Officials

The Little Rock School District (LRSD) is mired in a backlog of issues and problems, a backlog that is simply overwhelming. In such a situation, there will be certain issues that school officials must tackle first. Then--and not before--will it be possible to address the full range of issues.

Selecting from the Backlog

In substantial measure because of endless litigation and its consequences, a large backlog of issues and problems has accumulated in the LRSD. Unfortunately, the number of things that need to be done, and done now, are simply too many.

To illustrate, each of the following merits major attention:

District officials and public school patrons, however, are not likely to have the capacity to focus on more than one or a few of these in any particular year. Further, such initiatives would need ongoing attention and nurturing for several years.

So what should be the priorities for attention?

For the school board and the superintendent, we recommend immediate attention to three issues that might be called precondition issues. Until they are addressed, time will largely be wasted on other important issues. We refer to (1) safety and discipline and (2) the budget. In addition, we recommend (3) that district officials undertake selected educational initiatives on a pilot basis.

Safety and Discipline

The distinction between safety and discipline, noted in Chapter Ten, is important. We have concluded that LRSD schools are in fact reasonably safe. The danger of physical harm to students and teachers is small. In contrast, we have concluded that lack of discipline--referring to lack of orderly behavior necessary for a positive learning environment--is a serious problem. That is, there is a significant level of student misbehavior. This misbehavior, while not physically threatening, is disruptive and distracting to both teachers and students.

Unfortunately for school officials, the distinction between safety and discipline problems is and always will be lost on many school patrons. Patrons perceive inadequate discipline as a fertile environment for physical altercations and bodily harm. The public, and parents in particular, are not likely to perceive the schools as safe until they perceive an absence of discipline problems in the schools. If this is correct, the district will not successfully argue that the schools are safe until the record shows that discipline problems have been reduced to a minimum in all schools.

Concern about safety and discipline has probably done more than anything else to erode confidence in the public schools of Little Rock. The data reported in Chapter Ten are an embarrassment to the LRSD and to the community, no matter what spin one puts on them. Unfortunately, a number of school officials have come to define as normal and acceptable what parents and other patrons define as abnormal and unacceptable.

Too often we encountered these responses to the issue of safety and discipline in the public schools: "The schools are safer than the streets." Or, "The situation in the schools just reflects the situation in society." Or, "Our situation is comparable with that of other urban districts." Such responses reflect a mindset among too many administrators in the schools--both at the school level and in the central office.

We regret to say that school officials with this mindset just don't get it. What they say may very well be true, but it is not good enough. Parents take no comfort that the public schools may be safer than the streets or that the discipline problems in the schools mirror problems in society. Parents want the schools to be safe and disciplined, period.

If school officials continue to respond as they have, parents will continue to leave the public school system for private schools or for the schools in smaller towns that they perceive to be more safe. If parents have a choice between academically strong schools, on the one hand, and safe and disciplined schools, on the other hand, they will choose the latter for their children.

The issue of safety and discipline must be recognized as the most urgent issue. Success on other fronts will not substitute for failure on this front.

The Budget

As stated in Chapter Nine, an appropriate LRSD official needs to speak authoritatively about the district's financial situation and the strategy for dealing with it. As things now stand, many community civic and business leaders fear that the district is headed toward bankruptcy. In any organization recurrent questions about long-term financial stability discourage new initiatives and negatively affect employee morale. These are two reasons to give this subject immediate attention.

The situation does appear precarious, but the recent increase in revenue from property reassessment in Pulaski County will make the job of balancing income and expenses less difficult. Nonetheless, it will be difficult. Financial stability will require adjusting the district's budget to the end of special desegregation money from the state, the end of loan funds borrowed from the state, and the decline in non-recurring fund balances.

This issue has the potential to be very divisive and to generate ill will among people who need to be working together on other important issues. This is another reason for district officials to go on and address the matter and put it behind them.

Although the community must accept and support budget balancing, only district officials can do the informed work necessary to balance the district's expenses and income. Among LRSD officials, the superintendent and the superintendent's staff are the only ones who can lead the effort. They can lead it and complete it only if the board mandates the effort and then insulates them from the pressures of various interests within the district as well as in the community.

Nor is this something that can be handed off to volunteers from the corporate world. Corporate volunteers can help. But there is no substitute for the leadership of administrators who know the whole organization inside out and who can understand the consequences of various choices.

Given the fact that whatever budget-balancing strategy is chosen could be challenged in federal district court, one cannot be optimistic that this prerequisite condition--getting the financial house in order promptly--will be met. Despite the difficulty of confronting financial issues, our advice is to get on with it as soon as possible. The board and the administration will gain authority and credibility from having done it successfully.

Pilot Programs

Since more than 24,000 students depend on them for an education, professional educators in the LRSD would not want to focus all their energies on balancing the budget and on improving safety and discipline in the schools. However, given the complexity of the environment within which LRSD administrators and teachers work (as noted in Chapter Seven), we doubt that districtwide educational initiatives can be carried out effectively at present.

We would recommend, however, that district officials encourage and undertake a very limited number of educational initiatives on a pilot basis. (We should note that one complaint of teachers is that in the past, district initiatives often were not planned well or pilot-tested first.) In particular, we would encourage experimentation and pilot testing in one or more of these areas at selected sites in the district: making student achievement a priority, improving the educational achievement of disadvantaged children, showing students the modern world of work, starting character education programs, or trying out localized decision making at the school site. Such programs can capture the imagination of a number of school patrons, and pilot projects can provide experience for broader efforts later.

Observations and Conclusions

When playing with an electric train, one needs to place the cars on the track in the right order, with the engine in front, to achieve maximum speed and to avoid derailment. Similarly, certain school district problems need to be up at the front of the train because they must be solved as preconditions for success on other problems. We believe that for school officials, these are the first three: safety and discipline, financial stability, and an encouragement of experimentation on a pilot basis. After these, other problems and opportunities can be tackled with success.

Chapter 14
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