Does Little Rock School District Want to Grow, Or Not?

On Thursday, August 6th, before the State Board of Education, the Little Rock School District’s (LRSD’s) Dr. Frederick Fields admitted that there are no non-Academic Distress middle or high school seats available in the District.

Further, the District’s own million dollar facilities study says all district middle schools are at or above capacity, save one – Academic Distress Henderson – at 96%. That leaves the District 517 students (12%) over capacity in its middle schools.

If Central High School’s 1,059 students (73%) over capacity were redistributed among all high schools, the district would also be over capacity in its high schools.

With no available non-Academic Distress secondary seats available, LRSD is losing students and families into the welcoming arms of neighboring North Little Rock, Benton and Bryant School Districts via Opportunity School Choice. And LRSD must provide up to $400 per student to the receiving districts for transportation.

The facts beg one question: Does the Little Rock School District want to grow?

If not, LRSD should acknowledge the fact, so that the City of Little Rock, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, Metro Little Rock Alliance, and Arkansas Economic Development Commission may get about the business of informing prospective residents and employers that the largest school district in the state cannot and will not accommodate those families and/or employees with middle or high school students.

If it does, LRSD should take immediate action to open non-Academic Distress secondary seats as quickly as possible and no later than the 2016-17 school year.

Why, you may ask, would any district not want to grow? One need only follow the dollars.

In 2013-14, LRSD received 100% of the local real and personal property tax millage dedicated for public education (46.4 mills, 6th highest in Arkansas). In other words, LRSD received $162,366,824 no matter the number of students in the district. Add to that 28 years of $37,347,429 annually in “desegregation funding” (expiring in 2017-18), and that’s nearly $200,000,000, whether the district has one or 100,000 students.

This provides a perverse disincentive to retaining, returning and attracting students to the District, particularly those who are not designated as Free and Reduced Lunch and bring no additional State NSLA or federal dollars.

With State per pupil Foundation Funding hovering around $6,500 per student, one can readily see – it makes more financial sense to not provide public education to all who want it, than to provide it. Subsequently, LRSD educates the lowest percentage of its school age population of any district in Arkansas.

While the numbers vividly illustrate why the District has perpetuated no growth policies, I cannot – will not – believe that Superintendent Baker Kurrus and Commissioner Johnny Key are complicit with the past, nor bowed by the inflated influence of those with a vested interest in the District’s stagnation and decline. 

To offer assistance, parents have served up a potential solution: Purchase and convert the former Leisure Arts Headquarters at 5701 Ranch Drive to a traditional and/or conversion charter middle and high school at less than half the projected cost of building a new middle school on the District’s adjacent property. Oh, and don’t raise taxes or divert construction dollars from other areas of need to do it.

The biggest exodus of students from the district is between the fifth and sixth grades (24%). That percentage escalates to 61% when only considering Terry, Fulbright and Don Roberts, the only LRSD schools “West Little Rock.” And at Roberts, the biggest elementary school in the entire district, the district loses 76% of students between elementary and middle schools.

Simply creating a receiving middle and high school for Don Roberts fifth graders, not to mention Terry and Fulbright, would boost district enrollment by 1,050 for grades six through twelve. That’s $6,825,000 annually in State Foundation Funding and $47,775,000 over the seven secondary school years.

And with true intra-district school choice with transportation, the school could be open to any student, family in the district, as capacity permits.

In just two weeks, approximately 200 parents, guardians and citizens have shared their unique stories and this potential solution with the District’s two decision makers. Whether or not 5701 Ranch Drive is the answer, its possibilities should be immediately and fully explored. And if it is not the answer, the question remains: Does the Little Rock School District want to grow?

Or not?

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