Chapter Fourteen

Pathway Into the Future: Community Decisions

At the end of this study we reach two sobering conclusions. First, time is running out. Second, setting the Little Rock School District (LRSD) on a pathway to a less contentious, more promising future will require action by the community as a whole. Without such action, the long-term outlook for the Little Rock School District is uncertain.

Time Running Out

The greatest danger to the LRSD is that thoughtful citizens in the community will conclude that the prospect of having a stable and outstanding school system has become so remote that they should simply give up. Why should they waste time on a lost cause? We do not believe the situation has yet reached that degree of pessimism, but we do believe that point is in sight. Many concerned and supportive citizens will soon cross that bridge unless something happens that will give them a strong reason to believe a turnaround has begun.

Community Action Required

The community--as a whole--must decide what it needs and what it wants from its public school system.

Preparing the city's children to live and work in tomorrow's world...the quality of employees for the businesses of the city...the ability of the city to retain existing businesses and to attract new high-quality employers--all of these depend on the quality of the city's schools. Therefore, the community ought to decide that it is going to have one of the best public school systems in the country because that is what the children and the city both need. Then it needs to deliberate--as a community--and decide what steps to take, and in what order, to move in that direction.

A turnaround will probably take three to five years, with much of the first year spent in developing a community understanding of the situation and coming to an agreement on the strategy to which the community will commit itself.

The normal decision-making structures and political processes (which in ordinary times today may not be adequate in an urban school district) cannot accommodate such community decision making. The normal structures and processes are neither broad enough nor fast enough to achieve a new consensus and to set directions in the short amount of time available. The community needs to resort to an extraordinary process that will enable the community to understand the LRSD's situation and to chart a course into the future with communitywide support.

There is no obvious way of doing this. There is no sure-fire, failure-proof way of doing this. But we recommend an approach that does have a reasonable chance of working: a community congress on the public schools, which at the end of its work would offer for community endorsement a plan for the future of the public schools in Little Rock.

Community Congress on the Public Schools

How could a community congress on the public schools come into existence? How should it carry out its work?

What is needed is an openminded group of people, people with no axes to grind, who are broadly representative of the people of the city and are connected in ways that will permit their work to flow back and inform others in the community.

There is no provision in law for electing such a group, and, in any event, the community would probably not be best served by elected delegates who in campaigning would lock themselves into certain positions in advance. The community needs instead an extraordinary mechanism that would produce a broadbased group of capable citizens who would undertake to develop an understanding of the LRSD's situation and then offer to the community a broad strategy for the schools.

Such a development is not going to happen spontaneously. Someone will have to be responsible for the convening of such a congress. This need points to an ad hoc board made up of visible and trusted citizens of the community whose integrity in carrying out such an assignment would not be doubted. But such a board would itself need to be called into existence and charged with its task by some proper authority.

We propose the following approach:

1. By formal resolution, and to address one of the community's most serious problems, the Little Rock City Board of Directors, the community's highest comprehensive governing board, would, in behalf of the people of the city, ask a distinguished group of citizens to serve as a Board of Convenors for a Community Congress on the Little Rock Public Schools.

2. The Board of Convenors would need to be comprised of persons of stature in the community who were seen as objective and high-minded. These persons, perhaps six to 10 in number, would be highly respected ministers, educators, judges, and community leaders, long dedicated to goodwill among all peoples. The community would trust a board of such people to carry out their responsibilities with integrity and with independence from the influence of various groups who might insist that large numbers of their partisans be included in the congress.

3. The Board of Convenors would have four functions. The first function of the board would be to invite 100 or more community organizations--businesses and other places of employment, churches, neighborhood associations, etc.--each to choose one person to serve as a member of the Community Congress.

Since the student population of the LRSD is about two-thirds African American and the total population of people living within the district is about two-thirds white, a Community Congress that was approximately 50/50 would seem appropriate.

The members of the Community Congress would be chosen, as outlined above, in a fashion that would produce a group of capable citizens who would undertake to develop an understanding of the LRSD's situation and then offer a broad vision and strategy to the community.

The members of the Community Congress would be selected by a large variety of organizations in the community, but they would not be selected to represent the specific points of view of those organizations. The organizations would merely be vehicles of selection and connection back to the community. The citizens selected would simply be called "Members" of the Community Congress, not delegates representing their organization or any special interest.

Three groups should not serve as members of the Community Congress. First, employees of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock should not serve because this study and this proposal come from a UALR task force. The proposal for a community congress must not appear to be self-serving. Second, employees of the LRSD, because of the LRSD's vested interest as the primary beneficiary of the work of the Community Congress, should not serve as members. Third, elected officials, because they would tend to mix the political agenda of their offices with the agenda of the Community Congress, should not serve as members. Persons in all three of these groups, however, should expect and should stand ready to provide the Community Congress with information and other assistance.

Members of the Community Congress would be completely free to develop their own points of view and, within the workings of the Community Congress and its committees, vote their own consciences. Being from an organization, however, would connect them and their work directly to other people of the community, as well as create awareness of and interest in the work of the Community Congress. This approach should also mean that the employers of the members would be supportive of their participation in this communitywide undertaking.

The fact of the Community Congress, its composition, and its work should make a positive contribution in achieving a higher level of trust and communication among all people in the community.

The second function of the Board of Convenors would be to secure city, foundation, corporate, or other appropriate sources of funds to underwrite the costs of paper, copying, postage, etc., required in the work of the Community Congress. Necessary staffing might be done through a combination of hired, donated, and volunteer staff.

The third function of the Board of Convenors would be to select a person of high stature in the community to serve as the President, the presiding officer, of the Community Congress.

The fourth function of the Board of Convenors would be to call the initial meeting of the Community Congress, provide guidelines for its work, and assist it in organizing and getting underway.

It would be expected that the Community Congress would divide into committees and would organize its work around major issues, such as those identified in this report.

Since many of the members of the Community Congress would be citizens with jobs, we would anticipate that the committees of the Community Congress would meet perhaps 5-7 p.m. on weekdays perhaps once a week, and that the full Community Congress would meet less frequently in the evenings or on Saturday. However, the Community Congress would organize and carry out its work as it saw fit.

Having performed these four functions, the work of the Board of Convenors would be finished unless the Community Congress itself requested additional assistance from the Board of Convenors.

4. The responsibility of the Community Congress would be to develop a vision and a strategy to realize the vision, anticipating the time when the LRSD is declared unitary and released from court. In the course of its work, members of the Community Congress would develop a big-picture understanding of the LRSD and its problems and opportunities.

5. At the end of its work, the Community Congress would present the vision and the strategy it had developed to the community. The Community Congress would need to find a way to confirm that the outcome of its work had community support. One option could be to ask the Little Rock City Board of Directors to call an election and place the plan on the ballot for a vote by the people.

Inset: Community Congress on Public Schools

Relationship to the Courts

How does this proposal for community action relate to the federal courts and their continuing involvement in the LRSD? In the school district's current extensive involvement with the courts, it will be very difficult for the community--or anyone else--to succeed in significantly improving the situation.

But the community is simply going to have to take a chance and roll the dice. It is going to have to assume that in the near future the district court in Little Rock and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis will either declare the LRSD unitary and dismiss the case, or they will otherwise substantially reduce their involvement. As noted in Chapter Two, that would follow the pattern that has been emerging in school desegregation suits across the nation.

Through a Community Congress, the community might very well be able to accomplish what has eluded the school board, the administration, and the lawyers of the LRSD for decades: community actions that convince the courts that the LRSD ought to be set free from constant litigation and judicial oversight.

We recommend, therefore, that the people of Little Rock--through a Community Congress on the Public Schools--develop a vision for the schools and then a strategy to get there--by planning as though the LRSD were already out of court. A plan showing a clear community commitment to equal educational opportunity for all children might in fact become the basis for release from court sooner rather than later.

Strengths of the Proposal

The process outlined above would have these strengths:

The Community Congress could be a vehicle that would make it possible for the community, on an informed basis, to say what it wants from the schools. Then the school board, the administration, the teachers, the mayor, the city board, the local legislators, and others could do their respective parts in making it happen.

Although this process would be time-consuming and require an enormous amount of dedication and hard work, we are not able to conceive of a more promising process through which the community as a whole might act effectively to address a set of issues of overwhelming importance to the future of the community. Sometimes the longest way home is the fastest

Chapter 15
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