Little Rock teachers to go on strike over district's control

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Little Rock teachers will go on strike for one day this week over an Arkansas panel's decision to strip their collective bargaining power and complaints about state control of the 23,000-student district, union officials said Monday.

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The strike that will take place Thursday will be only the second time teachers have walked out of the job in Little Rock history. The Little Rock Education Association's announcement comes after the state Board of Education in October voted to no longer recognize the union when the contract expired Oct. 31.

The union has been calling for the state to give them back their bargaining power. Before the contract ended on Oct. 31, the Little Rock School District had been the only one in Arkansas where a teachers union had collective bargaining power. But union leaders said Thursday's strike was focused more broadly on returning full local control to the district.

Arkansas has run Little Rock's schools since the state board took over the district in January 2015 because of low test scores at several schools. The state board has voted to put the district under a local board that will be elected in November 2020, but with limits on its authority. The strike will occur the day the state panel is expected to vote on establishing the zones for the new local board.

"As educators, we would rather be in the classroom with our students, not on the picket line," Teresa Knapp Gordon, the union's president, said at a news conference outside Little Rock Central High School. "However, this community and the passionate, dedicated educators of this district will do what is necessary to protect the futures of our students."

While the union billed it as a one-day strike, Gordon left open the possibility of it stretching beyond Thursday if the panel doesn't return full local control.

"No options are off the table at this point," she said.

The only other teachers strike in the district was in 1987, when Little Rock students missed six days of school before a new two-year contract was approved.

Little Rock Superintendent Michael Poore said the district's schools will remain open and buses will continue to run, though some classes may have to be combined. In anticipation of the strike, school officials have been lining up hundreds of substitute teachers and said between 250 and 300 district and state employees can also work as educators.

"We are going to try to have as normal of a day as we possibly can," Poore told reporters. Poore said officials don't know how many teachers will join the strike.

The state Board of Education last month backed off a plan to divide control of the school district after critics said it would return Little Rock to a racially segregated system 62 years after nine black students integrated all-white Central High School.

The union, however, criticizes the latest plan because the state would still maintain some authority.

State Education Secretary Johnny Key and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who appointed eight of the nine state board members, said they were disappointed with the strike decision.

"I am disappointed that the union has chosen to lead a strike that encourages teachers to walk out on their students," Hutchinson said in a statement. "Superintendent Mike Poore has made it clear we are going to continue classes and continue education and that we will not let a strike stop the education of our students. We all desire local control and next year's school board election is a major step approved by the state Board of Education."

A teachers strike in Little Rock would follow similar actions elsewhere. A strike in Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district, canceled 11 days of classes for more than 300,000 students before a contract deal was reached on Oct. 31. And teachers in several states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky, protested last year at state capitols over wages and other issues.

Those in support of ending the Little Rock 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 offer advice on salaries and other issues. The state board also voted to reinstate employee protections for teachers in the district that it had waived in December.

Wendy Sheridan, a Little Rock parent, said she and her two children will join teachers at the picket line on Thursday before going to the state board meeting.

"While as parents we want what's best for our children, and that's to be in school, at this point what's best for our children is to support our educators and support others who are trying to do what's right for them in the long run," she said.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that that 1987 was the last time a strike was held in the district, not the state, and that the announcement was made Monday.