A smattering of protestors lined the plaza of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Wednesday at noon to denounce its support of the state takeover of Little Rock schools. Charles Zook said his family embodies what he characterizes as a suspect network of influence in the state’s 5-4 decision in late January to dissolve the locally elected school board.
“It’s not a secret that my father as CEO of the state chamber and his wife Diane, as a state education board member, have both been big supporters of Arkansas Learns which is a Walton Foundation lobby…it is run by Diane’s nephew Gary Newton,” said Zook. The ultimate aim could be the privatization of parts of the district in Zook's understanding.
Arkansas Board of Education member Diane Zook, the step-mom of Charles Zook, wrote in an e-mail to KUAR that after receiving legal counsel she is "not at liberty to discuss anything with regard to these issues." As did her nephew Gary Newton. Her husband, Arkansas Chamber of Commerce head Randy Zook has not responded to a KUAR inquiry.
State Representative John Walker, former LRSD school board members Joy Springer and Jim Ross, and Arkansas Community Organizations director Neal Sealy were among the dozen or so holding signs and chanting at the intersection of Markham and Scott.
Rep. Walker has represented the interests of minority students in central Arkansas for decades as an attorney. Walker contended the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has long ignored the needs of black children in the district.
“The schools of worth are the ones that they cherish and that means that they do not care about the education of black kids. The only concern is about protecting privilege."
Walker said the chamber pushed for the state takeover because it feared that a newly elected majority on the local school board, in office less than three months before the state board's 5-4 vote, would have changed the status quo and the chamber's traditional influence by re-directing support to students and schools in east and southwest Little Rock.
“They [chamber of commerce] want the budget to go as it has gone over the years, to enrich people here and to not address the needs of black children.”
It's reflected in how personnel are distributed through the LRSD, said Walker.
"Look at Forrest Park, all white teachers…maybe a black principal but all white teachers. You look at Jefferson, mostly white teachers, mostly white students. You look at Roberts, virtually all white teachers with a handful of black students."
Jay Chesshir, the president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, has not responded to a request from KUAR for comment.