As Stodola Steps Aside, It's Time to Rethink Schools, Governance (Blake Rutherford Commentary)

by Blake Rutherford  on Thursday, May. 17, 2018 11:06 am   6 min read

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who announced he would not seek a fourth term.

The sun was shining and the streets weren't crowded. I forgot how peaceful it could be, particularly if most of your days are spent on trains between big cities. It's nice to hear birds rather than the cacophony of car horns from impatient cab drivers. It's pleasant to walk, listening to those birds, free from worry about getting accosted or run over, which happens more than you would think, especially in Philadelphia, where I live now. 

I grew up in Little Rock; it will always be home. I am not there as much as I would like, and as a result I miss simple things I once took for granted, like a backyard, efficient trash collection, a sense of belonging. This is not to suggest that Little Rock is a simple place. It is complex and contradictory, superficial and progressive, aspirational and ambivalent, forward-moving and stagnant. 

I have never stopped loving Little Rock.

After all, I am a product of this city: its public schools; a welcoming place of worship; a safe neighborhood that allowed me to ride my bicycle, play pick-up sports and wait for the bus without fear of anything, especially violence; and a dinner table that was set with full plates every evening where my mother, always teaching, educated my sisters and me about humility, authenticity, individuality, fairness, generosity and good manners. 

Cities, like people, evolve, and I am reminded that Little Rock's journey is its own, shaped by inhabitants and circumstances, good and bad, but always in pursuit of its own best version, just as we are.  

Little Rock has come close. The River Market Project expanded the convention center, developed the River Market and created Verizon Arena. Later, the construction of the Clinton Presidential Center, another public-private partnership, also incubated the Clinton School of Public Service and its prestigious speakers' series. Little Rock has a world-class public library system, also supported by public money, and a soon-to-be enviable arts center. 

To paraphrase Keynes: in Little Rock, these are the things that only the city can support. 

Today, the belief that Little Rock would — or could — create such dynamism is ephemeral. The capital city struggles with violent crime, an understaffed police force, stagnant population growth, wage and housing disparity, racial mistrust, and, from my own recent observations, frustration at northwest Arkansas' progress, particularly in public education, outdoor life, the arts, entrepreneurism and safer streets. 

The city was created by everyone for the benefit of everyone. It maintains a conscience, a soul.

Headwinds

Like many, I was surprised when the Arkansas Repertory Theatre announced that it was suspending operations. Perhaps it was a failure foreshadowed, but not really: the announcement reverberated across the country, among actors and ex-pats, as well as long-time donors, students and regular theatergoers. 

The Rep must have a future in Little Rock, but that means that a new generation of stakeholders (they don't have to be young necessarily) must emerge to chart the organization's future, if there is to be one. The status quo failed, and as a result we learned that The Rep's circumstance was symptomatic of the city: you have to break it before you can build it. 

A recent study from Alarms.org found that Little Rock was the seventh most dangerous city in America among cities with a population greater than 100,000 people. According to that study, Little Rock is more dangerous than Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Milwaukee; and Miami, to name a few. 

That's not good, but here is what really worries me: that study determined, "where there is a high poverty rate, and an inability to earn a decent wage, there are high homicide rates and a prevalence of other types of violent crime." It sounds representative of too many neighborhoods in Little Rock, don't you think? (If, upon reading that, you nodded your head, then your city has failed you.) 

It is time for change.  

I have never believed that Little Rock, as a municipality, ought to go at it alone. The federal government must take a stake in the city's future.

There were many problems with President Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill, but it put 100,000 new cops on the street, including in Little Rock, and violent crime in the city decreased from 1995-2000. The Recovery and Reinvestment Act under President Barack Obama brought jobs and local investment. 

President Donald Trump has yet to visit Arkansas, despite his 27-point margin of victory. Mired in dilemmas predominantly of his own making, he is also yet to deliver on his promise of an infrastructure plan, which would do the things the Republican corporate tax cut won't: create jobs, increase local economic investment and provide ancillary benefits for everyone, not just the rich. 

They say that Infrastructure Week will actually kick off in 2019. U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., in his second term, cheered next to Trump when the House nonsensically repealed the Affordable Care Act. He voted for that bougie tax cut. 

But Trump and that tax cut are popular in Arkansas, so should Hill win (Cook Political Report rates it "Lean Republican"), he will have a unique opportunity to build a bridge between Trump and Little Rock (and its new mayor), even if the Democrats take the House.

Systemic Change    

It is a minority view among my left-leaning friends in Little Rock, but I was pleased that Gov. Asa Hutchinson assumed control of the Little Rock School District. The LRSD was in academic distress, the school board of directors was dysfunctional, and the distribution of — and continued need for — desegregation funds had already been subjected to forensic investigation.  

Beforehand, in 2012, while I was chief of staff to the attorney general, who played a substantial role in public education, I advocated, in the minority, for state takeover. Even then it was apparent that LRSD was in desperate need of a turnaround, and that present leadership was incapable of achieving it. Be that as it may, successful turnarounds have a defined exit strategy, and it has been three years since the state board of education made its initial decision. It is about time, as they say, to give it back. But that should not happen until greater reforms are guaranteed. 

Little Rock does not need another elected school board, or a revolving door of superintendents. Why revert to a system that failed time and again? 

Instead, Little Rock's new public school system should be organized as a department within city government, as it is in other cities. This new structure would concentrate power, promote accountability, and make clear that when it comes to public education in Little Rock, the buck stops with the mayor.       

Speaking of, recently Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola announced that he would not seek a fourth term. I believe Stodola achieved very good things for the city, and his legacy, like Mayor Jim Dailey's, should be favorable and generous.

But to be clear: Stodola was right to not seek re-election. Twelve years is a long time for any political administration, and there is virtue in never staying too long on the job. 

With that in mind, Little Rock's mayor-manager form of government is a detriment to its present and its future. It is long past time to abolish the city manager position, an unelected bureaucrat accountable solely to the board of directors and not the people, and vest full authority in the mayor and his team. Elections exist for a reason, and the leader of the city, in theory and in practice, should have to stand for them. 

That will not happen before the fall elections, which is why, in concert with Little Rock voters expressing their preference for mayor, the current city manager, Bruce Moore, should, with the appreciation of a grateful citizenry, vacate his position. This would afford the new mayor an opportunity to prioritize city government so that his (as of this writing the announced candidates are male) vision manifests itself fully. Otherwise, the mayoral election is meaningless, and change will not come. 

Even still, the answer to Little Rock's broader challenges are not managerial, superficial or monotonous; conformity to the present is white flag of surrender. Rather, the key to Little Rock's future is explicit economic growth across all parts of the city, particularly its poorest areas. 

The possibility to become a burgeoning city of the new and progressive American South rests at Little Rock's feet. It is time for our city to reach beyond its farthest branch, and in that pursuit, by all means, shake some trees.

Blake Rutherford is a graduate of Little Rock Central High School, Middlebury College and the University of Arkansas School of Law. He served as chief of staff and senior advisor to the attorneys general of Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia where he practices law at Cozen O'Connor. You can email him here.

 

 

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