State board votes to take over Little Rock School District

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Board of Education voted Wednesday to take control of Little Rock schools less than six months after a federal judge granted more independence to the historically embattled district and ended a quarter-century of payments to boost integration.

The state last year classified six of the district's 48 schools as being in academic distress after fewer than half of the students attending them scored at proficient levels on achievement tests. About 45 percent of high school students in the district are at campuses designated as underperforming. The Little Rock School District is the state's largest with nearly 25,000 students.

The board's 5-4 decision at a special meeting in Little Rock followed nearly four hours of public testimony from students, teachers and community members who overwhelmingly opposed the takeover.

"If I break my arm, you don't put my whole body in a cast," said state Sen. Joyce Elliott, a Little Rock Democrat. "That's kind of where we are with six schools; it's not the entire district."

Three of the six schools are high schools, two are middle schools and one is an elementary school.

The education board voted to immediately remove the seven-member Little Rock School District board. The superintendent, Dexter Suggs, will remain on an interim basis and report to the state Department of Education commissioner. State education officials also voted to create an advisory committee of parents, students, business leaders and other community members.

The judge in August signed an order that will stop payments the state has been making to the district since 1989. The district sued the state in 1982, alleging state policies were still creating a racial imbalance despite changes made since nine black teenagers were escorted into Central High School by federal troops in 1957.

State board members who advocated the change said they want to provide a better education to the students in the underperforming schools and expressed concerns about the district's ability to budget properly after the integration payments stop in 2018.

"The district will be forced to make many difficult decisions in the future including the removal of staff and closing of schools," said board member Vicki Saviers, who submitted the takeover motion.

Board chairman Samuel Ledbetter, who cast the tiebreaking vote, said students won't see an instant change but he hopes to quickly improve the distressed schools. He said the state's takeover only concerns the board's wish to improve each of the six schools, and is not a statement on the Little Rock district's lingering racial issues, which have provided a backdrop in the district for decades.

"It's a dark past in our state but we're so far past that," Ledbetter said after the meeting. "It's a diverse board and no vote in this board has taken place along racial lines."

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