Arkansas Mergers Yield Drop in Black Leaders

Lawmakers want to study the declining number of black school officials.

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Black legislators and school leaders in Arkansas are protesting the loss of dozens of African-American school board members, superintendents, and principals, nearly two years after the legislature voted to force dozens of the state’s smallest school districts to merge with neighboring districts.

Members of the black legislative caucus are leading the call for inquiries into the sharp decline in the number of blacks in school leadership posts, particularly where majority-black school districts have consolidated with neighboring majority-white districts.

“It’s a huge concern for the black caucus … to make sure people are treated fairly” and to ensure that the school mergers “don’t inadvertently show disdain or disrespect” toward majority-black communities, said Rep. Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock.

Ms. Elliott said that she and other members of the House education committee have asked legislative staff members to give them a full report on the status of black leadership in the consolidated school districts. She said legislation may be necessary to guarantee that local black leadership is not scaled back by any future mergers.

Responding to a court order to address education inequities, Arkansas lawmakers voted in a January 2004 special session to force 57 districts with fewer than 350 students each to merge with neighboring districts. In the past year, the state board of education has had to force mergers between some districts that were unwilling partners. ("Arkansas School Merger Plans Take Shape," April 21, 2004.)

“I think the legislature acted with good intentions for children,” Ms. Elliott said in an interview. “But we are reassessing the choices we’ve made to address the courts’ concerns.”

Those who have fought school consolidations in rural Arkansas say the loss of black leaders has been demoralizing for some communities, and threatens the social and political progress Arkansas has made as a result of the civil rights movement.

“I think that a lot of the motivation [among state leaders in forcing the school mergers] is that they want to take underperforming black districts and hide them in white districts [with better test scores],” said Lavina Grandon, the founder of Advocates for Community and Rural Education, a statewide advocacy group for small schools.

Sharp Decline

A report released last June by the Rural School and Community Trust—a nonprofit group in Arlington, Va., that promotes policies supporting small schools and communities in rural areas—shows that black school board membership has fallen by 55 percent in the Arkansas school districts affected by the mergers.

Fifty-seven districts ceased to exist after merging with neighboring districts, forcing at least 36 black school board members out of office, according to the report.

Five of the six black superintendents in the now-closed districts were forced out of office, the report added, and advocates say the number of displaced superintendents and principals has grown in recent months as merged districts have decided to close a number of schools in majority-black communities.

Dorothy Singleton, an African-American and small-schools advocate who lives in White Hall, Ark., said the loss of black leaders and black-majority school systems has made black students more prone to expulsion and suspension under some majority-white school boards and white school administrators.

Attempts to reach two African-American superintendents who formerly led school districts that have been consolidated were unsuccessful.

Small-schools advocates describe the loss of black leaders in the rural districts as a sensitive topic that some officials may not wish to discuss publicly.

The tiny Lake View, Ark., school district sued the state a decade ago demanding more money and attention for the state’s poor, rural districts. It won its case in 2002, but the victory in court led to the closing of the mostly African-American district and its small K-12 campus. ("Ark. Leaders Confront Tough Options," Aug. 7, 2002.)

Actions Defended

Ken James, the state education commissioner and a former superintendent of the Little Rock schools, said he is sensitive to the black legislative caucus’ concerns. But he rejected the view that state school board members had intentionally reduced the number of majority-black districts and leadership positions for blacks through the consolidations.

“In no way did the board ever consider” intentionally merging majority-black school districts with majority-white districts to hide low test scores, Mr. James said. He added, however, that the board did consider shifting students from low-rated districts into higher-performing districts as one factor that might be in their best interest.

“Would it be in the best interest of students putting two failing school districts together?” he said in an interview last month.

While he opposes legislation that would set rules against the loss of black school leaders, Mr. James said lawmakers need to be mindful of the issue as they proceed. “We don’t need to do anything in this state to diminish the opportunity for minority leaders to surface,” he said.

Mr. James predicted that more school and district mergers may be ahead as the state fully unrolls its court-ordered program by early this year to improve school buildings across the state. Some schools may be closed if new campuses are built or if they struggle to provide the number of credits and courses now required for graduation.

State leaders last month also were reacting to the latest state supreme court ruling in the school finance case known as Lake View v. Huckabee, which was reopened this year after the court’s monitors declared the legislature had not done enough to improve the state’s public schools.

Some lawmakers outside the black legislative caucus said they shared their African-American colleagues’ concerns.

Rep. Rick Saunders, a white Democrat from Hot Springs and a retired superintendent of several Arkansas school districts, said the legislature never should have called for the closure of many of the smaller districts. Decisions about the future of schooling in Arkansas should include the concerns of the black caucus and should stress school quality over size, he said.

“I share their concerns,” Mr. Saunders said. “I came through the [education] ranks myself. Had I been cast out because of a reorganization, I would have had a tougher time.”

Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who originally proposed the consolidation of high schools throughout the state but opposed the legislature’s merger plan, had little to say about the black caucus’ concerns and was awaiting the state supreme court’s latest decision in the Lake View case, press secretary Jim Harris said.

“The governor’s concern regarding consolidation was that we get an economy of scale for education,” he said, “that we be able to provide the type of education experience that children need at a cost that we can afford.”

PHOTO: Arkansas state Sen. Jim Argue, upper left, and Rep. Joyce Elliott, upper right, listen during a meeting of the joint interim committee on education Dec. 20.
—Mike Wintroath/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Pages 13-14

Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Arkansas Mergers Yield Drop in Black Leaders
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