The Arkansas Supreme Court has dismissed a challenge to the state's takeover of the Little Rock School District.
In an unanimous decision, the court ruled that the Arkansas Department of Education did have sovereign immunity, or the right to remain free of a lawsuit, in its takeover of the District. A lawsuit filed by three former Little Rock School board members and one area voter claimed the state treated the district as an exception and the state had no plan in place to benefit the district, placing its actions outside the law.
In January, the state Board of Education dissolved the Little Rock board but left then-superintendent Dexter Suggs in an administrative role answerable to State Education Commissioner Johnny Key. The state board cited six academically distressed schools as the cause for a takeover. In May, Baker Kurrus assumed the superintendent's role after Suggs resigned over allegations he plagiarized portions of his doctoral thesis.
The latest Supreme Court decision comes after an earlier ruling by Pulaski County judge Wendell Griffen, who sided with the former school board members. The Supreme Court opinion, written by Associate Justice Robin Wynne, summarized the former Little Rock board members' (the appellees') arguments.
“...The complaint also alleged the following with regard to the State Board’s decision being arbitrary, capricious, in bad faith, and wantonly injurious: (1) the standards established under Arkansas law do not allow the State Board to take control of a school district that is not in academic distress when that action is not necessary to remedy schools in academic distress; (2) there are no established criteria for taking over a district in which the great majority of the schools are not in academic distress, and it has never been done before; (3) ADE staff has said that the District is implementing the right kinds of innovations in the six schools with a sense of urgency; (4) the fact that the decision was arbitrary, capricious, and wanton is evidenced by the decision to retain the superintendent; and (5) it does not appear that the ADE has developed any plan that would significantly change the improvement efforts currently underway in the six schools.”
Key and the state board members who voted in the takeover, had appealed the lower court decision asking for a dismissal of the case. The high court opinion sided with them, saying the appellees' arguments “are not factual; they are instead largely legal conclusions and speculation.”
“This court held that the allegations did not establish a sovereign immunity exception. Here, we likewise hold that appellees failed to establish in their complaint that the State Board acted arbitrarily, capriciously, in bad faith, or in a wantonly injurious manner in assuming control of the District,” the opinion reads.
Responding to the ruling, commissioner Key sent out the following statement:
“We are pleased with the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision regarding sovereign immunity. We are committed to ensuring the constitutional standard of education is met for all students in Arkansas, and this ruling affirms the state’s duty to act when necessary. We remain dedicated to supporting Superintendent Kurrus, educators, and parents to provide a high-quality education to all students in the Little Rock School District.”
Jim Ross, one of the three former Little Rock Board members involved in the suit, said he was “disappointed” but “not surprised” by the Supreme Court ruling. Ross said the ruling maintains a societal power structure in which African-Americans are shunned from leadership roles and self-governance in the state.
“This story is about an African-American majority that took over a school board with a reform agenda to finally end all the years of subjugation of their children and a white dominated [state] board....stepped in and said no, black people don't need to be in charge here,” Ross said.
Voters in Little Rock elected African-Americans to represent a majority of positions on the school board in the fall of 2014, just months before the takeover. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, African-Americans and Hispanics make up 49.1 percent of Little Rock's populace. Whites make up 48.1 percent.
Another former Little Rock Board member, C.E. McAdoo, echoed Ross's argument, saying the state board did not adequately assess the plans the local board had begun to adopt to improve student outcomes in the district.
“Do you want results or do you want control?" he said. "When you look at what's happened in the Little Rock school district, it's not about results, it's about who controls it.”
Speaking after a luncheon held by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, Governor Asa Hutchinson said he agreed with the Supreme Court's ruling that the state did not act arbitrarily.
"We have an obligation to make sure in every one of the schools in the Little Rock School District there is an excellent education being provided. There were six schools that were not performing academically," he said.
Hutchinson said the reasons for the takeover were to improve educational outcomes for children in the district.
"We need to have comparable testing to see progress and to be able to measure progress in those non-performing schools," he said. "They're looking at ways to measure performance on a regular basis. Hopefully when we get them up performing, obviously our responsibility is to turn the schools back."
A separate case challenging the state takeover, filed by civil rights attorney and state representative John Walker, is under consideration in federal district court.
Sarah Whites-Koditschek contributed to the reporting of this story. It was updated at 11:02am Friday, Oct. 30 for clarity and to reflect additional information.