In September, the Little Rock School District will mark the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School. For those of you that need an brief primer, then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to bar nine black students from integrating the all-white high school. After 50 year, Central High School has a minority enrollment of over 70%, but to hear the African American school board members, the Little Rock School District has still not successfully integrated.
In February, U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, Jr. released the school district from federal supervision, ruling that the Little Rock School District had achieved unitary status, but local attorney John Walker filed suit on behalf of African American students, saying that the school still needed federal supervision because of the achievement gap between black and white students.
Even after a half a century, race still has an influence on the operations of the Little Rock School District. In May, the majority black school board voted to buy out the contract of Superintendent Roy Brooks, to the tune of a half a million dollars, money that the financially strapped school district can ill afford. The president of the school board, Katherine Mitchell, and the three other black school board members have worked for months to have Brooks removed, while the white board members have lobbied hard for Brooks to retain his job. Brooks, by the way, is black.
At issue is Brooks handling of schools in predominately white west Little Rock. The area has seen explosive growth in recent years, and Brooks has lobbied hard to build more schools in the area. Brooks’ detractors claim that school is predominately African American neighborhoods are overcrowded and are also deserving of new schools. Brooks also instituted a policy of personal accountability for each employee. Teachers have been held responsible for their students’ lack of progress, earning Brooks the wrath of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association. Brooks has been quick to terminate those that fail to perform up to his high expectations, regardless of race. In a district where the status quo has always been maintained, this has come as an unwelcome change.
There is no doubt that Brooks’ management style is abrasive, and he can be difficult to work with, but the issue doesn’t seem to be about Brooks’ lack of people skills. It’s about Brooks’ lack of pandering to the district’s African American base. In the 50 years since Central High, the district has lowered its expectations for minority students in an attempt to be seen as fair. Brooks has refused to lower expectations, instead holding all students and faculty to the same high standard, regardless of race.
During the board meeting, board member Baker Kurrus, who has been a strong supporter of Brooks, expressed fear that the white families that remain in the district will leave the district in protest of the firing, and will harm the district. With less than 30% of the school population consisting of white students, Kurrus has a point. The districts on the outside of Pulaski County, most notably Conway, Cabot and Bryant, have exploded in recent years as a second round of White Flight has taken place. Mitchell claims to want a diverse population in the Little Rock School District, but said that an all-black school is not a bad thing.
Brooks buyout is effective in 90 days. August 24 is scheduled to be his last day-just in time for the Central High School 50th Anniversary Celebration. Not much has changed.