Board strips Little Rock teachers' union bargaining power

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — 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 yelled "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 its next moves and didn't rule out the possibility of a strike. Little Rock's schools are out on Friday.

"Of course only the members can make that decision and we will look at all of our options and talk to all of our members and ultimately they will decide what to do going forward," Teresa Knapp Gordon, the union's president, said after the vote.

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.

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.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and education officials have dismissed the Central High comparisons and said their approach would give Little Rock the local control it's been seeking but still offer the state support that's needed to address academic problems.

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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. Hutchinson has not said whether he supported the push to no longer recognize the union, but the proposal came from a former adviser to the governor and eight of the board's nine members are his appointees.

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.

Local control supporters say other steps by the state have sown mistrust since the takeover. The contract for the first superintendent appointed by the state to run Little Rock schools wasn't renewed after he opposed the expansion of charter schools. The state board in December voted to waive employee protections for the district.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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