Early voting is underway in the Little Rock School District board election. Voters will decide on two of the board's seven seats by Tuesday, September 16.
Joy Springer is challenging incumbent Norma Jean Johnson in the downtown area and Jim Ross is challenging incumbent Jody Carreiro in West Little Rock.
Here are transcripts from interviews with candidates Ross and Carreiro:
Q.) What should be done about issues of illiteracy in the district?
"We’ve got to think about literacy programs, you’re absolutely right. There’s not one program for every child. And what we’re trying to do right now is say there is one program for every child. We have a number of children in our school district from first grade to third grade. The research shows this very clearly, if a child is not at grade level reading by third grade, it is very hard to get them caught up later. What we need in place is a program that will help our children from Roberts to Baseline (elementary schools), every one of our kids, that will find those most vulnerable readers and work one on one with them. You can’t put them into groups of three, you can’t put them into groups of six, which is what we’re doing right now. Those children who are already behind, they won’t come out in a small group. They need one on one attention, that’s reading recovery. It helps thousands of kids in our district. In 12 weeks, helps them get back on reading level.
We’ve got to put that in every school in our district. Then, we need a middle literacy program where kids who are on grade level or maybe just a little bit off, can work in groups of three and six to have some extra training. And then we need our whole literacy curriculum, which happens with our teachers every day. So we need a tiered system. But what we cannot do is throw the lowest performing children out the window and say they don’t matter, like our superintendent did when he said we can’t afford this kind of program in an urban school district. We can’t afford it is silly. We have to have it, so that’s what I envision."
Q. Why are reading test scores so low?"
I’d like to ask the experts, I’d like to ask the literacy experts in the district what happened this year. We need a real public, not behind the scenes talking about this, but we need a real public accounting of what went wrong in all of our schools. Terry Elementary is the elementary school that made its test scores. Congratulations to Ms. Register for that, but, we need to understand that. We need a board that can ask really hard questions of the people in charge and then we need a board who can put programs into place that our superintendent can then reinforce in our schools."
Q. Can you describe your professional and educational background?
"I’m a product of Little Rock and a product of the Little Rock School District. I graduated from Central High School in 1984. I went on to get a B.A. in history, then went to the University of Massachusetts and got an M.A. in labor history and then went on to Auburn University and got a Ph.D. in Southern history with a special emphasis on religion and social movements. I wrote a dissertation on Southern tenant farmer’s unions. Somewhere in there, I also became a secondary ed teacher. I started teaching here in Little Rock at the Alternative Learning Center, which is a school we have for kids who aren’t making it in the traditional school and need a different environment for learning. And then I moved over and taught at Park View for a number of years where I taught a traditional classroom and I taught in AP classrooms. So I have taught literally in high school classrooms from the most alternative, creative kids who need a new environment, to the kids who are struggling, to the most gifted kids in our district. I also teach every year at Arkansas Governor’s School which is an amazing program with an amazing group of kids. I have worked in schools teaching, I have worked in schools providing professional development for teachers, I have co-taught in the schools, so I have been in these schools for 14 years working hands on with these folks. Today I’m a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and I teach classes on the 1960’s, the Vietnam War and other things."
Q.) Do you think your historical interests will influence your approach as a school board member?
"Absolutely, I said it the other night in the forum and I’ll say it again. History tells us where we begin to make the changes now. I’ve been researching for the last year the Little Rock School District in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lot of the problems we face today start back then. That’s where we have to begin understanding why parents are angry, why parents are fleeing and why the answers we’re providing maybe aren’t working."
Q.) What’s your vision for the school board and what kind of role do you think you would play if you were elected?
"So the school board, seven people, representing seven zones but committed to representing our host city. I would envision myself working with those seven people to formulate good programs, good policies and proper personnel to help every child leave our district with high performing reading and math programs that help every child succeed, new science and social studies programs that help every child begin to think more critically and an expansion of our arts and music programs to make sure all of our children have access to those kinds of programs. The board’s responsibility is to make sure these city schools are performing at the highest level possible. We hire a superintendent to implement our vision and that’s where we’ve gone wrong in the last few years. We’ve brought in superintendent after superintendent after superintendent, allowed them to set the vision, it is our local community that should be setting the priorities for our local schools."
Q. What do you think of Dexter Suggs?
"He’s a nice guy, we’ve had lunch, we’ve talked, we’ve laughed and I like him personally. I disagree with some of his policies, and that’s what adults do,we disagree with policies, we fight battles, at the end of the day we can still be friends, I hope. It is the board’s responsibility to hold all employees, including the superintendent, responsible. And we have made some serious mistakes in providing due process to employees. We have made some serious mistakes in our middle schools this year in student assignments, and people need to answer for that. We’ve also made some serious mistakes in overspending this year and buying some things we do not need for this district. So we’ve got to hold our employees accountable and that does include the superintendent. And that needs to be done in a way that protects the due process of our employees also, but we have to call people on the carpet when things are not going right and I will be that board member."
Q.) You mentioned frustration over the superintendent letting go of school board officials responsible for district oversight. Who do you think should hold administrators accountable?
"I’ve been thinking a lot about this. We need an evaluator of our programs and our spending. I don’t think that person needs to be tied to the superintendent’s office. I think we need an evaluation office that reports directly to the board so they do not feel intimidated by the administration. So, I would like to see the creation of an evaluation team, we used to call it PRE… and that is I think something we need to look at again. An independent evaluation team that looks at programs to make sure they’re doing exactly what they say they’re doing, that looks at how we’re spending our money. They need to report directly to the board."
Q.) What is your plan for the district's financial future?
"We’re spending like there’s no tomorrow now. Last board meeting, the board spent $200,000 recommended by the superintendent on professional development that we could have done in house. We have a professional development team we pay a lot of money to and they’re good. We spent quite a bit of money, I think $150,000 on a team to come in and build a series of tests for our elementary schools. When I talked to administrators and school level people, they told us we did not need that program and we could do it in-house. We’ve got to quit spending, so I propose an immediate spending freeze while we evaluate the budget [and] an immediate hiring freeze while we evaluate the budget. An immediate hiring freeze while we evaluate positions in our district and make sure we don’t have too many people in place. Those are the first two places I would begin. And we are going to have to make some cuts in spending budgets. I think we start at the top and do everything we can to make sure we’re not cutting any money from teachers. I’m talking to teachers from all over the district this year who started school and did not have enough textbooks, did not have enough copy paper. Those little things don’t sound huge but they are. We can’t educate our kids unless we’ve got the materials in the school. So we cut at the top and make sure our schools have the money they need."
Q.) Why are you opposed to a state takeover?
"The dangers of a state takeover are many. The first is, the state’s been involved very directly in education here in Little Rock for seven years. They brought us programs, they’ve mandated we follow programs that don’t help our students. I think we can if we trust the real experts in our district. Second of all, they do bring some real changes to the structure of our schools that could take away some protection for our teachers and I think that’s something we need to think about. Our teachers are hard working people who give a lot of of their time and a lot of their energy and a lot of their health and a lot of their sanity to our kids. We need to afford our teachers complete protection, due process protection, I think that’s a very important thing. So the state takeover, it sounds like a neat idea and it sounds like it would be the panacea for everything but at the end of the day, the answers are going to be found with teachers and with administrators who are literacy and math experts. Those are the people we need to trust and we’ve not been doing that. This board has not listened to the teachers. It has not listened to the mid-level administrators who understand literacy, who understand math, who understand science, who understand social studies, who understand arts. Those people need to be brought before the board, we need to hear their plans and then we need to figure out how to write programs to help them do what they are paid to do."
Q.) Why do you want this job as a board member?
"I started off as a person interested in trying to help kids in schools and then trying to save a literacy program and I found out pretty quickly that you can organize until you are blue in the face at the grassroots level, but until you have a voice on that board who will speak for the most vulnerable kids in our district, who will speak for those who don’t think the district is for them anymore, that you’re not going to make very effective change. The reason why I ran for this seat was I want to be that person. I want to be able to speak for those who don’t have a voice. I want to be able to help those who feel like there’s no hope in this district anymore. I want to make sure we have the programs in place to help every kid. I actually do believe in the Little Rock School District, I know sometimes I’m a huge critic of it but I’m a product of this district. I believe at the end of the day we’re doing good things but now we need to do great things for every child. And we’ve been failing children for a long time in this district. We’ve been failing whole parts of this district for a long time in this city. So I’m running for this seat with the hope I can at least be one voice and one vote that will at least be aware of disparities in our city."
Q.) What do you think about restructuring schools?
"I think restructuring schools is a great idea, but here’s the problem with restructuring schools. Right now we've restructured Forest Heights and it’s a great place. Dr. Robinson has done an amazing job, I’m so impressed with what she’s done. We restructured it, but we moved most of the kids who were not doing well out of that school. So if that’s our strategy, to move these kids around, we’re going to run out of places to move those kids. We have to make sure every school in our district is like Forest Heights. Not that it’s a STEM school, but that it has the highest quality administrator, it has the highest quality teaching staff and it has a culture of care. And that’s what Forest Heights has created, a real culture of care. We’ve got to have that in every one of our schools. So yes, let’s re-purpose our schools. I’ve got some ideas to re-purpose some schools, we need to give our parents more choice in that sense to be able to be competitive in this growing educational market. But, at the end of the day, let’s not say we’re going to reconstitute schools as something new and forget about the most vulnerable kids in these buildings. That’s our moral responsibility to those children."
Q.) Please describe your professional and educational background:
"Well, my educational background is I have a bachelor’s degree in math education and a master’s degree in mathematics, and after college I became an actuary. I started taking those actuarial exams, I have some certifications in that area, but what all that brings as far as what I bring to the board is that I have to work with boards of all kinds of all different make ups, as far as the professional works, and then I have to do the financial analysis that has to be done on those things. So, I think the working-together skills... a lot of our clients are union and management, so we have to work with boards that do that, so I think there’s some cross over skills that have really come in handy for me while I’ve been on the board."
Q.) Do you tend to be the person crunching the numbers on the board?
"To some extent yes, I’ve been the person that, right off the bat, they asked me to be on the audit committee and I’ve been on the audit committee the whole time I’ve been on the board, which is ok, it’s been a good thing, we’ve been able to have nice clean audits the last few years and we get a lot of good things from our internal audit folks that keep us out of trouble. And that’s just part of the process, everybody comes with different skills and they take advantage of my skills."
Q.) What do you think should be done to address some of the issues of illiteracy in the district?
"In the last 15 years, there have been tests to consider. If you look at the last 15 years we have made significant progress. At the same time, our district went from about say 50 percent free and reduced lunch as an economic indicator, up to about 70 percent free and reduced lunch. So at the same time that we have got more challenges, just because of who we are, where we are, we have made very significant progress. Now, until we’ve helped every child we’re not done. But I think we’ve made a lot of progress and there’s a lot of things that are very positive."
Q.) What kind of program would you like to see in place for reading? What should be criteria for picking a program?
"In the last few years, the district really has gone away from picking lots of little programs. Even before this superintendent, the last superintendent worked to delete a lot of programs and the things that were working try to make them systematic instead of programmatic. So we’ve come a long way in that and I think we need to continue to do that. Now, whatever those initiatives are that are systematic, we have to continue to make sure that they work and follow up on those to try. But, we’re going to have to continue to try things that are maybe not the things we’ve done before to see what will work."
Q.) So you’re saying that a program specifically geared towards reading might not be the best thing geared toward reading might not be the best thing for the district?
"Everything we do is about reading. Even if you look at the scores, the problem with the math scores is reading. So everything cycles around reading. You’ve got to focus on that because if you can’t read you can’t do any of the other subjects. So, we have to find not only what will work within that but then what we have to layer on top of that to get help to every child and not just some children."
Q.) What do you think of Dexter Suggs’s performance and do you plan to vote for his contract to be renewed?
"I think any superintendent coming into Little Rock is going to have bumps in the first year because it’s a difficult place. Any urban district is a difficult place. I think Dr. Suggs has come in and done a lot of good things. With the board together, we’ve accomplished some things that have been talked about but haven’t been accomplished in years, including finding a way to come to a reasonable conclusion of the desegregation case. Finding a way to regenerate a couple of schools to do some very different things. And those are really big things that people have talked about those the whole time I’ve been on the board and it's not happened. The board with Dr. Suggs has really accomplished some pretty big initiatives this year. So, yeah, there have been some bumps, there have been some things that could have been done differently or better and we’ve talked about that together. You know, I’ve expressed my concerns, other board members have expressed their concerns and we all learn from those things. I think that we can continue on and can do a good job. And you did ask and yes I do plan to vote [for Suggs's contract] the way superintendent contracts work, it makes sense to keep three year contracts with superintendents, especially in an urban setting. I think that will be the right thing to do, so that’s what I’ll plan to do on that."
Q.) What is the board’s working relationship with the superintendent, is there anything about it you think should change? Are things going the way you would like to see them go?
"Well, I’ve been saying something similar to this the whole time I’ve been on the board. That we need to move towards something where we have quarterly conversations, annual evaluations. We don’t need to try to surprise each other. Superintendents don’t need to try to surprise boards, and boards don’t need to try to surprise superintendents. So we need to sit down and talk on a scheduled regular basis during the year. We’ve talked about that with the board and we’ve talked about that with the superintendent and that’s the plan for this next year. We’ve had a couple of conversations but they weren’t planned ahead, that takes some of the pressure off that way cause we know on this date we’re going to sit down and chat about things and so that takes some pressure off. So we can learn from each other that way in a much better fashion. And I think that we’ve learned some things, the board didn’t communicate with Dr. Suggs as well as it could have a few times, he didn’t communicate with us as well as he could have. And we’ve both learned and I think we both have as a board and as a superintendent, we have a better understanding of what we need to do to be successful during the next year."
Q.) What are your ideas for dealing with the district budget?
"There are lots of things in the district budget that are going to have to be dealt with. And the administration has already brought us a lot of things that they have already been able to implement. And they brought us several things for us to discuss over the next year, what the board has talked about with the superintendent and what we plan to do in this next board meeting is we’ll establish a community budget committee so that as we’re talking about areas of things that we need to do, we’ll have good way to collect input from the community. But we’re going to have to look at several things including finding ways to be more efficient and that will include some adult-sized conversations [about] where we’ll have the best place to put a school. For some of these elementary schools, we need them to get more students in the school or we’re going to need to combine some of those schools because we’re going to have to look at those things. And that’s going to be ways to trim the budget without taking things away from students. Because that’s what we’re about is making sure that we have everything that every student needs.
Q.) If the district has to make personnel cuts, where do you think would be the place to start with that?
"Well, we’re going to have to look everywhere, and I think we’ve already tried to look at some things in administration and they’ll be some more looks at how we can make administration more efficient and that probably includes, maybe not quite as many people as there currently are. I think that again, right sizing some schools will help because...teachers won’t be splitting time between schools, it will be better for the teachers and better for the students. And, at the same time, we won’t have half teachers running around doing some of those things. So, it’s going to be everywhere. We’ll have to look at some of the operational efficiencies, even though operationally, what are the most efficient bus routes, what are those things. It will be a top to bottom look."
Q.) What do you think about the possibility of a state takeover? Is there a part of you that thinks that maybe that would really make a difference in the way that the school board and other district leadership haven’t been able to?
"Nobody’s heard from the state, 'boy if you guys would implement this it would really help' and so, that’s one issue. The other issue is that would be an advantage to the state. Boards are seven individuals. We all have very different backgrounds, we have different ideas about things. So sometimes it takes us a month or two months or three months to get together on how best to address an issue. If you have what they’ve done in Pulaski County, you’ve basically got a tsar. And there’s not this whole discussion process, there’s not getting everybody on board, its here’s how we’re going to do it. Is that enough of a reason? Would that make enough of an improvement to do something like that? I don’t think so. There’s lots of time that any board member would be frustrated because I want do something, but I can’t do anything, the team, the board as a group has to do it. There is that frustration… you wish you could just… king for a day type thing if I could do this. I think it’s still important to our city and our state for us to show to our city and our state and our country even, that these people are very different but they can work together for the good of children, despite their differences. What better lesson to teach our children than that?"
Q.) National Public Radio recently did a story on research that shows the matter of who a superintendent is, is less important than community engagement in schools and general discourse around educational issues. What do you think?
"That’s a good question. You know, it’s always better to have more conversation, more community engagement, but after actually doing that you also find out that until you hit some hot button, nobody really wants to come up and talk because there are so many things bearing down in life… So you have to actively work to draw people out and do that. Dr. Suggs tried to do that this year for the board in these community conversations in different places. And some of those worked really well, some of them worked not as well. It wasn’t because any of them were done any differently. Because unless somebody felt they had a hot issue, it’s hard to take away that time, so you have to do it on purpose and I think you're gonna have to do it with enough regularity that people are comfortable and know it is a conversation and its not just another, 'here’s what we’re going to do next' type situation. So, yeah, there’s still room to grow there, there are still things to do there. We’ve got to have our community. We can’t do this. I already said we’ve got to have great teachers and good students and engaged families. We’ve got to find ways to engage families. And some families didn’t have a good experience in school. The parents didn’t have that great of an experience from times gone by, and so they're not necessarily comfortable going to school and hanging out with the teachers and seeing what’s going on there so that’s not there particular bailiwick for them. So we’ve got to find ways to open up and make some other connections with folks."
Q.) With the school desegregation funds coming to an end by the 2017/2018 school year, has the 1989 lawsuit funding been used effectively to fulfill its purpose? Is race still a factor playing out in the district? If so, how?
"Race is always going to be some level of a factor. I see a lot of hopeful signs, mostly with kids. I see students and it is not an issue to them. I have lots of hope in that area as we move forward but it’s still an issue as we’ve seen in lots of things, in lots of things that have brought to the board in the last couple of months. Socioeconomics are a bigger driver even than race when it comes to students getting what they need. Yes, I know those things are tied very closely together to our community in particular, but what we have to work on there, is to continue to track and to do that. Everybody talks about achievement gaps and they still exist, they are, you know as we have discussions, we enjoy looking at all the bad but there have been significant reductions in the differential that was there, or achievement gap as they like to say. And then again, that’s not to say you have arrived, there is a… well, we are going in a certain direction. If you look at either socioeconomics or race, either one we have begun to close that gap and the kids who are achieving are continuing to achieve and improve and the kids that have not been achieving have been improving at a faster rate. We’re certainly not there yet but I think there has been some pretty good progress there that I hope we can build on. That is always going to be part of the discussion, we always have to be sensitive to race with children of need who need extra resources in the schools."
Q.) I’ve heard anecdotally there's a sense in the community the school board is split down racial lines. Is that true?
"No, we haven’t voted together on everything, we’ve voted together more often than we’ve voted apart. That is not something that as a board we’ve discussed. That is not something that has been apparently driving anyone on either side of that. A lot of the split vote there is not always on racial lines. It always pains me, there’s not anything that appears that way, that’s something that people enjoy talking about if that even appears to be that way it is. But I think we all- I work hard to find the common ground to try to find something we can all be together on. And I think a lot of other people on the board do too, as opposed to just saying, 'I’m right, everybody else is wrong.' That’s part of [the question] how best can we teach our students? To show people with different backgrounds can work together."
Q.) What could the board do better?
"We’ve talked about some of these things. The workshop model, where we’re not in a position to take action on things. We’ve had a couple of workshops in the past month or so. I think that’s part of what we’ve talked about when we talked about having quarterly conversations with the superintendent and have a quarterly time to relax and spend some time talking big picture and having the conversation, as opposed to all the conversation happening in a board meeting. And everybody has talked about this. I think almost everybody on the board, you get something on the agenda meeting, board members aren’t really supposed to chat it up when we’re not in board meetings because we’re supposed to do business in the public eye. And then when you get in the public eye and now you have to make a decision and you have to defend your position, and all that, it makes for difficult working situations a lot of the time. So if we can have more of the smaller conversations that are offline so to speak, there still public but there not in public where you’re about to vote and you have to defend yourself. That we can have a conversation and have ideas and talk through that idea and say, that’s really not such a great idea. Boards don’t typically have that opportunity. So, what we’ve been talking about is we have to create those opportunities for us so we can talk through and get all that stuff out of our system before we get to the point we’re ready to vote on big things."
Q.) So why do you want to be on the school board?
"Both my daughters went through this district and had very good experiences, came in very well prepared. One went to U of A and the other is finishing up at UALR. They both came in very well prepared. And that was a good thing. We enjoyed, my wife and I, enjoyed our time volunteering through the PTA, through Odyssey of the Mind and did a lot of those other things. We enjoyed that. That was for us a good outlet to give back to the community, to thank the city of Little Rock for giving our children a good education. One thing that always bothered me, all the negative comments seemed to drive the conversation. And there were so many good things that were happening that needed to be there. And as I learn more about it, I know those good things are not in every corner of the city and we’ve got to work very hard to make sure they get into every corner of the city and make sure every child has the same opportunities. But there’s so many good things that are happening that need to be replicated in lots of places."