Arkansas Education Commissioner Defends Appointment Of New Superintendent For Little Rock Schools

Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Baker Kurrus on Tuesday following the announcement
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

The Arkansas Department of Education has picked Bentonville's superintendent to lead the state-run Little Rock School District.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key announced Tuesday that Michael Poore will take over as Little Rock's superintendent beginning July 1.

"We had a very specific need last spring for someone like Baker who could come in and repair an organization, and he has done that," Key said at a joint press conference with Baker Kurrus on Tuesday.

"And now we have a very specific need to move beyond organizational issues, building on what he has created, and have a strong academic leader to move things forward,” Key added. 

Key had announced late Monday that the state would not renew the contract. Kurrus is an area businessman and former school board member who led the LRSD for nearly a year following the State Board of Education’s take over. That decision came because six of district's 48 schools are in academic distress. 

Baker Kurrus says he believes his leadership has set the course for the future success of the district.  

“At some point, you have to run the machine. You have to crank it up, find out what’s wrong with it, fix it, and let it roll," he said. "And we’re at the let it roll phase. I’m just so proud of our team, so proud of our teachers, so proud of our students. I’m hopeful.”

The news that Kurrus's contract wasn't renewed quickly drew criticism from Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and the president of the Little Rock Education Association.

Stodola says he's contacted Governor Asa Hutchinson, asking him to reverse the decision to end the contract. The mayor says he is dismayed and upset because he feels Kurrus has brought a degree of stability and fresh optimism to education in Little Rock.

"He's got teachers behind him. He's got administrators and superintendents behind him. He is data-driven. He's a smart man and changing the rider in the middle of the race is an inappropriate decision. I think the education department, the state, and the executive branch are making a big mistake," says Stodola.

LREA head Cathy Koehler says she is alarmed Key did not consult with the state's appointed LRSD Civic Advisory Committee, as part of his choice. The commissioner says while he did discuss the matter with the governor, it was his decision to make alone. 

Koehler, who recently negotiated a new teacher's union contract with the district involving the most significant changes in 50 years, says Kurrus's removal will hurt LRSD students and staff. 

“What in the world would anyone that looks at indicators of success think replacing Baker Kurrus at this moment would do other than to destabilize our district at a time that we were on a sure path for stabilization? And we had everyone engaged in shared sacrifice under Baker’s leadership.” she said.  

Stodola says he thinks the 24,000-student district was on the right path and the move was not about a lack of credentials but rather over Kurrus' position on charter schools.

"I think people who don't want to discuss that are ignoring what was really behind this decision. I think... [Kurrus] respects charter schools. He knows there's a place for them. The only thing I've ever heard him say is, 'Give me a chance to get these schools back out from under academic distress and then we'll compete with any charter school there is in the country'," adds Stodola.

Kurrus has declined to speculate publicly on whether his recent public comments against the expansion of two area charter schools, LISA and eStem, were the reason his contract was not renewed. Key says Kurrus's stance on charters did not play in to his decision. 

The Little Rock mayor says it's ridiculous that the district has had, on average, a new superintendent about every 18 months since 1988. He believes the latest superintendent switch is an example of the state thinking it knows more than citizens about what is best for public school children in Little Rock.

LREA plans to rally in front of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce building at 3:00 p.m. Thursday, and on the Capitol steps at noon on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, Superintendent Poore is making plans to travel down from Bentonville next week to make appearances in Little Rock, in response to criticism of his appointment. 

“I hope to just kind of tackle it head on," he says. 

"And the best way for me to do that is to be in front of people. We're trying to organize something next week where I can be in public settings in Little Rock and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.”

Poore has been a superintendent for five years in relatively affluent Bentonville. In 2011, he left a struggling school district in Colorado, where he helped close schools as a deputy superintendent. 

He says LRSD stakeholders and community members should not be too quick to make assumptions about what he represents. 

“They think ‘wow, we just hired a guy from Northwest Arkansas, from Bentonville Arkansas, the home of the Waltons, the home of WalMart, who have espoused choice.’ Well, I think I’m a difficult guy to box in, to say, ‘here’s what he believes.'"

Poore will take leadership of the district on July 1.