This past February, a judge finally released the Little Rock school district from federal oversight of its integration efforts, nearly half a century after paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division escorted nine African-American students into the city's Central High School, in a defining moment of the civil rights movement. But events this spring have demonstrated that race remains a potent divide within the city's public schools.
In May, the school board voted 4-to-3 to dismiss Roy Brooks, who had served as superintendent for the past three years. Brooks spearheaded an extensive reorganization of the district in 2005, making significant administrative cuts. He also was credited with raising test scores. For those reasons, his contract was extended last year.
But that was before an election transformed the board's membership. The newly installed African-American majority decided it didn't want Brooks running the local schools. Members complained that he had handed out raises without authorization and had been insubordinate. Brooks refuted these charges in detail, but the board was clearly anxious to get rid of him, holding a series of rushed "emergency meetings" that drew rebukes from a federal judge.
Brooks filed suit against two board members over an intimidating letter they sent to nine school administrators, warning that their jobs would be in jeopardy if they spoke in Brooks' defense. In the end, just a week before a scheduled termination hearing, the board decided to buy out Brooks' contract, at a cost to the district of more than $600,000.
Brooks is black, but all of his remaining supporters on the board were white. The whole affair has drawn protests and charges of racial ill will from both his opponents and defenders--particularly after Board President Katherine Mitchell complained about Brooks' decision to trim jobs, saying that "African-American employees have lost $918,000."
Cuts to school administration are always politically dicey, particularly in big cities where education employs a disproportionate share of the black middle class. Mitchell dismissed the idea that the Little Rock dispute had anything to do with race, calling that idea "bull crap."
She may be right. It may just have been about power and patronage. It's all too common for urban school superintendents to be fired prematurely because they fail to meet unrealistic expectations or because they challenge the status quo in trying to effect real change.
Brooks' case appears to be an example of the latter. "Change always meets resistance, and the changes that I have advocated are no exception," Brooks says. Finding someone of equal stature to replace him amid the current political turmoil may not be easy.