Chapter Seven

Overwhelming Complexity

According to former superintendents, the decision-making environment within which the Little Rock School District operates is so complex it is crippling. District officials cannot by themselves simplify this environment.

One former superintendent of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) said, "Little Rock is just about the most complex situation that anyone could dream up." Another said, "The first time I met Bill Clinton, then the governor, he told me that Little Rock was the most difficult superintendency in the country and perhaps the most difficult job."1

What do we mean by complexity? It is a simple job to control a canoe in smooth water. It is a complex job to do so if you are shooting the rapids while holding onto a baby and fighting off bees at the same time. The second situation describes the LRSD.

This chapter describes the sources and consequences of "about the most complex situation anyone could dream up." Former superintendents provide a birds-eye-view of this situation. Two sources of the complexity are the seldom-mentioned size of the district and the frequently-cited permanent involvement of the federal courts in shaping and overseeing the district's desegregation plan. Then the desegregation plan itself must be noted as a third source of complexity in the decision-making environment.

Size of the School District

Any educational organization the size of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) will be complex. It has over 2,600 employees, a budget of $142 million, 25,000 students, a comprehensive set of primary and secondary educational programs, schools at 50 sites, and is governed by a popularly elected board. But the complexity faced by the LRSD officials far exceeds anything which might be called normal for a district its size.

Permanent Court Involvement

Courts have essential roles, and one of them is protecting the constitutional rights of all citizens, including the rights of minority children to equal protection of the laws in the educational arena. However, the well-intentioned actions of courts can have unintended consequences. Certainly courts have not intended to create an environment so complex as to cripple decision making in a local school district. But that is the situation in Little Rock.

Courts are not designed to run or regulate a large educational organization on an ongoing basis. The establishment of the Office of Desegregation Monitoring as an arm of the court represents an acknowledgment of this.

Court processes are cumbersome compared to normal decision-making processes in a large organization led by a strong chief executive. A matter to be decided by a court is placed on a docket, a schedule, and that has the effect of postponing the decision for months. Court processes are very formal, paper intensive, and strongly governed by precedents in previous cases. Court processes are adversarial and go to great length to assure all parties full opportunity to present their cases. This all adds up to very slow decision making. In the realm of public education, what all of this means is that matters that an experienced superintendent could reasonably resolve in an hour or a week must be put on hold for months pending court review.

If a court is involved in an organization on an ongoing basis, it plays havoc with management priorities because if an issue is raised in court, no matter how relatively unimportant in the judgment of school officials, the issue jumps right to the top of the priority list and must receive intensive attention. Otherwise, the district could be embarrassed in court or even sanctioned by the judge for being inattentive to the issue.

A private sector analogy could be drawn with a corporation in bankruptcy court. Although bankruptcy laws may be intended to help a business, sometimes the managers must devote so much time and attention to court-related matters that other vital activities, such as improving current products or developing new lines or new markets, are neglected with the result that the business cannot survive.

In the case of the LRSD, matters are frequently raised in court that span almost all the subjects of normal managerial decision making. A former superintendent summarized it this way:

If you look at any school district that is under court order, the court has some impact on operations. A few districts like Little Rock are under such direct involvement with the courts that it is an all-consuming complexity.

The following sections of this chapter will bear out this assessment.

Desegregation Plan

There are several recent examples of the gridlock created either directly or indirectly by the desegregation plan. In 1994 the district began a long-range planning process. This process included, among other things, the establishment of a finance committee to address the district's budget problems, a comprehensive study of the district's physical facilities, and a study of the middle-school concept as a possible solution to the problems encountered in the junior high schools. The board rendered the finance committee ineffective and has disregarded or tabled recommendations from both the middle school study and the facilities study. One of the stated reasons for not acting on the studies and recommendations was that the impact on the desegregation plan was unknown.

The plan growing out of the 1989 settlement as finally approved was the "Desegregation Plan, Little Rock School District" of April 29, 1992. This document is 231 pages long, and much of it is in fine print. The LRSD also has multiple obligations embodied in the "Interdistrict Desegregation Plan" of April 29, 1992, which is 68 pages long.

These plans established an elaborate monitoring and reporting process. For example, the Arkansas Department of Education was to be responsible for monitoring compensatory education in the three school districts that were covered by the settlement. In a 1989 document, the Department referred to this monitoring as "massive and encompassing."2 This language was not an exaggeration. Besides the monitoring activities of the Arkansas Department of Education, there were to be 13 biracial committees, with site visits to schools each semester. Incentive schools were to be monitored more frequently (quarterly) by a districtwide biracial committee. A news story from October 1995 illustrates the difficulty of making the monitoring mechanisms themselves work:

The Biracial Advisory Committee...has historically had problems identifying its mission, keeping a focus on issues and retaining its membership. This month, 13 of the 30 committee members gave notice of their resignations....3 (Emphasis added.)

Another recent news story shows the wide scope of school district business covered by the settlement agreement and thus monitored by the federal district court's Office of Desegregation Monitoring. It also documents how much unsolicited help the school board and superintendent receive. On July 3, 1996, it was reported that an attorney for intervenors in the ongoing litigation wanted the federal judge "to order the Little Rock School District to implement more than 250 recommendations issued by the Office of Desegregation Monitoring."4 The reporter noted:

The monitor's recommendations have touched on virtually every aspect of the district's operation, including student recruitment, staff employment, multicultural programs, student discipline, building maintenance, early childhood education, the district's Biracial Advisory Committee, alternative schools, school counselors, budgeting and selection of principals.5 (Emphasis added.)

While the lawyers and monitors may have simply been doing their jobs, the net result is an extremely complicated environment for LRSD officials.

Another event underscoring the point occurred in May 1996. In documents prepared by the LRSD administration in connection with court filings, the district was said to have a total of 1,753 obligations in court-approved desegregation plans after elimination of duplication among applicable legal documents (and the district asserted it had substantially complied with 1,689, or 96 percent).6 If one assumes the district's assessment of completions was correct, that leaves a short list of only 64 to go! Although one might rightly view many of the 1,753 items as minor, not all are; and the list at minimum testifies to the complexity of the situation. Even if an obligation is minor, the district can be hassled about it if it is a part of a court-approved plan. One is reminded of Jonathan Swift's character in Gulliver's Travels who learned firsthand that a giant can be tied down with a thousand strings.

Insider Perspective: Former Superintendents

The Task Force decided to seek the views of former superintendents as an aid in understanding the LRSD decision-making environment.7 The former superintendents are a group uniquely qualified to offer perspective. They had the unique vantage point of the chief executive officer. They experienced the challenges first hand, and now they can look back with some detachment. Some of them served in a superintendency or another position in central administration before appointment as LRSD superintendent, and some have served in such positions since leaving Little Rock.

There is a profound consensus in their basic views of the situation in the LRSD. We learned that there has been a high level of frustration in the superintendency for at least the last 25 years. Here is the picture of the decision-making environment, the recurring themes, which emerged from the interviews of former superintendents, 1972-1993:

LRSD officials have to deal with issues in a charged atmosphere that is the byproduct of decades of controversy and litigation. The political culture is fragmented, and interest groups are good at mobilizing to stall and stop progress. The school board itself often mirrors the fracture lines in the community. There is a constant state of turmoil.

The issues themselves with which LRSD officials have to grapple are unusually complex. As a former superintendent explained:

Because of the history and the nature of what was going on there, race was a big issue. The complexity of operations is greater because the issues are more complex. We were not allowed to make decisions based on the merits of the issues. When you must invoke the rule of race, it is almost like having to establish different criteria for making the decision. That makes the situation more complex and impossible to solve.

LRSD officials have to deal with a significant number of "extra players" in the decision-making arena. A former superintendent stated:

The most frustrating thing was the inability to isolate what it was that we wanted to do, even in the desegregation issue, and move in that direction without interference from outside forces that hindered us in doing that. I don't say that in an attempt to say that outside forces were bad and we were good, but there were so many of them that it got in the way of ever getting anything accomplished. Once you got something that you wanted to do, somebody intervened, the courts would get involved, then you did something else. We just could not keep issues simple and move forward mainly because of interference of outside forces.

In addition to the normal constituencies of a public school district including the teachers union, business leaders, and the media, the LRSD adds the federal district court, sometimes the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, the Joshua Intervenors and their lawyer (representing minority students and parents), the Knight Intervenors and their lawyer (representing the teacher's union), the administration and lawyers of the North Little Rock School District, the administration and lawyers of the Pulaski County Special School District, and the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) in an extraordinary role (not just the normal relationship of the ADE to a public school district in Arkansas). This makes for an extremely complex decision-making arena.

Inset: Actors in LRSD Decision-Making Arena
Inset: Issues in the LRSD Decision-Making Arena
Inset: Characteristics of LRSD Decision-Making Process
Inset: Consequences of Complexity in LRSD Decision-Making Environment - Internal
Inset: Consequences of Complexity in LRSD Decision-Making Environment - External

LRSD officials are simply not able to set a course for the district and then stay with it. This was one of the greatest frustrations of former superintendents. One former superintendent said:

The greatest source of frustration for me was the inability of the district's management team to manage. We were in no position to establish or accomplish goals except for those tasks assigned by the court. We had such an invasive court order that the district couldn't move without its involvement. Decisions were made by lawyers and judges. I spent seventy days in court [one year]. When I was [in court] so was the legal team and administrative staff. And for every day in court we spent two in preparation for that court appearance. Then you are really talking about a lot of time and energy into one thing.

District leaders are constantly diverted from an educational institution's central concerns: teaching and learning. The former superintendents specifically lamented that the complex environment, which flows out of the permanent involvement with the court, repeatedly shifted their attention away from customary school issues and educational concerns. After hearing from the former superintendents, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the decision makers with official responsibility for setting the LRSD agenda have not in fact controlled it.

One consequence of the continued involvement of outside forces, specifically the court, is centralization of management functions. This has been the case at a time when prevailing thought on school reform has called for decentralizing decision making to the individual schools. The former superintendents felt there was little option because if the orders of the court were not carried out, the superintendent was held responsible. Although some tried to move more decision making to the school level, the situation simply did not lend itself to site-based management. The result was less authority for principals at the school level. It also meant that classroom teachers were left out of decision making.

The environment takes a heavy toll on school personnel. One former superintendent said:

When I got there the management team had been beaten up so badly that they were almost non-functional. Principals were without support. . . . Some good things were happening in the district, but not because of central leadership.

Figure 7-1 suggests that the toll on superintendents, specifically, is heavy. It shows a strong downward slope in the length of time served by superintendents of the LRSD since 1961.

Figure 7-1

In this connection there was a noteworthy omission in the comments of the former superintendents. None made a comment about a lack of capable and dedicated personnel in the LRSD.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the problem is systemic. Changing the players, specifically the superintendents, has not changed the outcome of the game. Figure 7-1 indicates that they are simply burning out sooner.

It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that some important changes a modern urban school district should undertake simply will not occur, given the current complexity of the decision-making environment. For example, a strong case can be made for offering a calendar and schedule deliberately constructed to fit the needs and schedules of parents and families today. But it is obvious that LRSD officials do not have the time and energy to develop and put into place a revised or expanded calendar and schedule.

Truth and Half-Truth: "LRSD shouldn't complain. It voluntarily

agreed to the terms of the settlement."

It is not uncommon nor is it completely unfair to chide the LRSD for not having complied in full detail with all the obligations rooted in the 1989 settlement agreement. It was, as the criticism goes, an agreement to which all parties voluntarily agreed, including the LRSD.

The LRSD did agree to the terms of the settlement, but the district was not really free to exclude a substantial number of the provisions in the settlement because those provisions already existed in orders issued previously by the federal court, and they would have continued in force in the absence of an agreement. Had the LRSD not accepted their inclusion, it is likely that one of two things would have happened: other parties would not have agreed to the settlement, or the court would not have approved it. In point of fact, the court did not initially approve the agreement. It was not until April 1992 that the agreement was finalized and approved by the court.

It is easy to overstate the extent to which the LRSD really had a choice in regard to the inclusion of many of its obligations in the settlement agreement. The obligations were going to be applicable to the school district one way or another, with or without a settlement agreement.

What Does It Add Up To?

Several observations seem unavoidable after this review of the sources and consequences of complexity as faced by LRSD officials.

The environment within which LRSD officials operate is so complex that it is crippling. The superintendent and the central administration frequently suffer "system overload"--like an electrical power system sometimes does in extremely hot weather, or like a tractor does when too many heavy wagons have been hitched at one time.

The LRSD cannot unilaterally simplify the decision-making environment within which it operates. The keys to a manageable future lie outside the LRSD itself--in the hands of the community and the court.

The LRSD needs stable leadership to give it direction and consistency and to assure soundness in all its operations. Since 1982, however, the LRSD has had six "permanent" and four interim superintendents; a total of 10 leadership changes in 15 years. Frequent changes in leadership have meant that instability and uncertainty have become almost permanent features, with negative effects on the morale and performance of school personnel. Frequent changes in leadership also undermine public confidence in an organization.

In a fundamental sense, it does not appear to matter who the superintendent is. We conclude with an assessment of the status quo as reflected in comments by former superintendents:

Observations and Options

The status quo is an option that could be chosen deliberately or by default. But the plans that were intended to be a pathway out of an undesirable situation in 1989 have become an impediment to progress.

The LRSD can argue its view in court that it has substantially met its obligations in the settlement agreement and that the old dual system of segregation has been rooted out. If the argument is persuasive, the court could declare the district "unitary" and end its oversight of the school district. This would eliminate a significant source of complexity in the decision-making environment. However, this would not eliminate the underlying problems in the public education arena in Little Rock.

The community could fashion a plan, and make a credible commitment to it, for quality educational opportunities for all the children of the city, regardless of race. The plan should specifically include the disadvantaged children in poor families. This might very well be the best way to hasten the day of release from court supervision. This option is addressed later in this report.


Notes:

1. At the request of the Task Force, Dr. Thomas A. Teeter, Professor and Associate Dean of the UALR College of Education, interviewed the individuals who served as superintendent of the Little Rock School District from 1972 to 1993. The following former superintendents were interviewed: Dr. Paul Fair, Dr. Paul Masem, Dr. Ed Kelly, Dr. George Cannon, Dr. Ruth Steele, and Dr. Mac Bernd. Dr. Winston Simpson and Mr. Vance Jones, who served as interim superintendent, were also interviewed. The interviews were conducted by telephone between March 4 and April 1, 1996, on a not-for-specific-attribution basis. Therefore, the superintendents whose statements are quoted are not identified. Dr. Henry Williams, then superintendent, and Ms. Estelle Matthis, who had also served as interim superintendent, had been interviewed in an earlier phase of the project and were not included in the interviews conducted by Dr. Teeter. Nor was the current superintendent, Dr. Don Roberts, interviewed by Dr. Teeter. Dr. Roberts met with the full task force in October 1996.

2. "Arkansas Department of Education Pulaski County Desegregation Monitoring" (attachment to letter of Attorney H. William Allen to Attorneys John W. Walker, Christopher Heller, Stephen W. Jones, M. Samuel Jones, Richard W. Roachell, May 31, 1989), 7.

3. Cynthia Howell, "LRSD Panel to Monitor All Schools, Attorney Says," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 25, 1995, 2B.

4. Cynthia Howell, "Walker Wants LRSD Ordered to Comply with 250 Suggestions," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 3, 1996, 2B.

5. Howell, July 3, 1996.

6. There were three companion documents: (1) "Little Rock School District Position Paper on Desegregation Obligations," May 8, 1996. (2) "Little Rock School District Desegregation Obligations Audit Results - May 19, 1996, (Obligation ID Number Order)." (3) "Little Rock School District Desegregation Obligations Audit Results - May 19, 1996 (Current Status Order)."

7. See Note 1, above.


Chapter 8
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