LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Arkansas Times) — The state Board of Education was told today that the state takeover of the Little Rock School District doesn’t have to end until a year later than previously thought — and even then, the state might not have to return full local control to an elected school board at that time. The news followed some expression of frustration on the part of state board members about the status of the district.
Lori Freno, an attorney for the state Education Department, confirmed the five-year limit on state takeover ends for the LRSD in January 2020. But, she added, “if there were a new election called, it wouldn’t have to be called and conducted [such that] a new board was in place by January.”
That means election of a local school board might not occur until November 2020, which would place it on the ballot with a presidential election.
The district was taken over on January 28, 2015 for test score deficiencies in six of 48 schools. State law says that local control had to resume after five years. At a meeting in September, a different department lawyer, Courtney Salas-Ford, said in response to a question from board chair Jay Barth that an election would need to be held in November 2019 or May 2020. (Here’s video from that meeting, with Salas-Ford’s comments beginning around 3:30:00.)
At Friday’s meeting, Barth told Freno that the state board was previously told the five-year clock ends on January 28, 2020, “which would have required elections this year. That’s exactly the way it was portrayed to the board a few months ago, and it’s never been corrected,” he said.
But Freno said the Education Department has always interpreted the five-year statutory limit to mean that the process to return local control must begin by that date, not that a locally elected board must actually resume control at that time. “Once the five years rolls around, then decisions have to be made,” she said. The timeline for returning local control in districts previously taken over by the state, such as the Helena-West Helena School District and the Pulaski County Special School District, have followed that interpretation of the law, Freno said.
However, it’s also not clear how the timeline for state takeover might be affected by a new education accountability law passed in 2017. Though the five-year deadline is still mentioned under the rewritten law, its language could allow for continued state involvement in a district after that deadline. The state could allow a local school board to be elected but not return full governance powers immediately, Freno said.
“Under the new law, there are many more steps that could be taken. For example, even after the five years there could be a limited authority board in place,” she said.