The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday stripped the collective bargaining power of the Little Rock teachers' union, sparking fears of a strike even as the panel backed off a plan that critics said would be a return to a racially divided system 62 years after the integration of Central High School.
A packed auditorium chanted "shame" at the board as it adjourned after abruptly passing a proposal to no longer recognize the Little Rock Education Association as the district's bargaining agent when the union's contract expires Oct. 31. The move came shortly after the panel voted to return local control of Little Rock's schools to a board that will be elected in November 2020.
The 23,000-student district has been under state control since January 2015, when it was taken over because of low test scores at several schools.
The head of the teachers' union said its membership will likely meet next week to discuss the next moves and didn't rule out the possibility of a strike. Little Rock's schools are out on Friday.
"I'm disappointed with the decisions they made today," Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said after the votes. "They demonstrated their incompetence and they showed that they have not listened to the voices of the people who have told them over and over what they want."
The new plan for the district's future control scraps categories the board approved last month, which would have put several predominantly minority schools under "different leadership" than the local board. Critics of the state's plan have compared it to the 1957 crisis over Little Rock Central's integration, arguing that it effectively creates two school districts with several majority-minority schools still under some form of state control. Scores of people gathered Wednesday night at Central High for a vigil urging the state to return the full district to local control.
Many details remain unclear, as with the previous plan. The new proposal calls for a memorandum of understanding on the state's role in the schools.
"I don't think we're going to be able to accomplish the goals that we want, the goals we want to for students, under (the previous) framework," said Chad Pekron, who proposed the new plan. "Therefore, I think the best thing we need to do under the circumstances is return the district to unified, local control under a framework of significant and agreed-upon levels for state support for the schools that really need it.
Local control supporters said the union move undermines the effort to give Little Rock residents a say in their schools.
"Let candidates run on it and let the people have a say," Ali Noland, a parent in the district, said after the vote.
Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, the city's first popularly elected black mayor, on Monday urged the state to return the district to local control and said any major decisions, including those pertaining to the union, should be left to the board elected next year. Scott proposed putting the district under a board appointed by the city and state from January until the new school board is elected in November 2020.
Little Rock is the only district in the state that has a collective bargaining agreement with a teachers' union, and the association says 70 percent of teachers are members. Gov. Asa Hutchinson had not said whether he supported the push to no longer recognize the union, but the proposal came from a former adviser to the Republican governor. Hutchinson has appointed eight of the board's nine members. Supporters of ending the union's recognition have said more teachers will be represented by the district setting up a personnel policies committee made up of teachers that would officer advice on salaries and other issues.
After the meeting, Hutchinson praised the board for making "tough" decisions.
"I'm confident the action to keep the LRSD unified will unite our efforts and balance the local support with state support," he said in a statement. "This is an opportunity to partner with the district in a way that will continue state support along with the efforts of a locally elected school board, the private sector partners and the city."
The board also voted to reinstate employee protections for teachers in the district it had waived in December.
Gordon said it was unclear whether the union's members could strike or take any other action before the current contract expires. Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore this week warned teachers that any work stoppage or misuse of sick leave could result in their firing.