Little Rock Schools In Turmoil

Wednesday, April 11th 2007, 7:25 am
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Weeks after it was released from nearly 50 years of federal monitoring, the Little Rock School District is in turmoil as the school board considers firing the superintendent.

The seven-person board, which has a majority of black members for the first time in its history, is divided along racial lines over whether to fire Superintendent Roy Brooks. The board's white members support keeping Brooks, who is black.

The board plans to meet Wednesday evening for the third time in a week to discuss the matter.

Brooks' critics have accused him of disrespecting the board by working on prospective state legislation without its approval. They say he has told teachers to quit their union and avoided speaking to the parents of black students.

The superintendent's supporters say he hasn't done anything to warrant being replaced.

``I've heard from some people who indicate to me that sometimes they don't like his actions or his words,'' said Melanie Fox, a white school board member. ``However, they like the direction the district is going in.''

Board President Katherine Mitchell said the dispute between board members over Brooks hearkens back to the 1957 Central High School standoff between then-Gov. Orval Faubus and President Eisenhower. Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court order striking down segregation after Faubus tried to prevent black students from entering the school.

``It's worse than 1957, and we're about to have a celebration for the desegregation at Central,'' Mitchell, who favors firing Brooks, told Little Rock radio station KARN last week.

``In my opinion, we're going to be even worse than we were there because it's a division among the black and white citizens, to a great extent. ... We cannot continue to function in this kind of environment,'' she said Friday.

The superintendent, hired in 2004, said he has acted with the knowledge and approval of the board. He has enjoyed support from many in the business community, who point to the district's recent release from federal supervision as evidence of his success.

In February, U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr. found that Little Rock was substantially complying with a 1998 desegregation plan and that, with a black-majority board in place, could expect further progress. The ruling is being appealed by a lawyer representing a group of black students.

The spat in the state's largest school district has caught the attention of Gov. Mike Beebe, who said it is hurting Arkansas' image as a good place to do business.

``I don't know where this thing is going, but it's not pretty for anybody,'' Beebe said.

He hasn't said if he believes Brooks should stay or go, but he warned the board that its strife will hurt economic development in the Little Rock area.

``It's bad for the school system, it's bad for the kids and obviously that kind of turmoil hurts economic development opportunities and the opportunities for Little Rock to be able to attract folks who want to live here,'' Beebe said.

Brooks said he will request a public hearing if the board fires him for cause; he does not want the board to buy out his contract, which has two years remaining at $198,000 annually.

``To buy out my contract would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that would be better spent improving the circumstances of our students and teachers in this district,'' Brooks said during a special board meeting Friday.