The Little Rock Crisis Returns

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: May 10, 2007 4:01 PM

Just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Crisis of 1957, another one is fast developing here.

Last week it even made the front page of the New York Times, and it wasn't pleasant reading:

"Fifty years after the epic desegregation struggle at Central High School, the school district here is still riven by racial conflict, casting a pall on this year's ambitious commemorative efforts.

"In the latest clash, white parents pack school board meetings to support the embattled superintendent, Roy Brooks, who is black. The blacks among the school board members look on grimly, determined to use their new majority to oust him."

So much for the chances of a fair and impartial hearing for Dr. Brooks, the hard-driving school superintendent who came here three years ago with the avowed aim of making this school district the best-performing urban school district in the country.

So he's been slicing away at a bloated bureaucracy, sifting resources to the classroom, trying to raise academic standards, and in general educating kids instead of just going through the same old motions.

All of which has shaken up the dead wood and stirred up those who miss the status mediocre quo, notably the teachers' unions.

When the union-backed members of the school board became a 4-3 majority after last fall's elections, it was only a matter of time before Dr. Brooks would have to fight for his job.

Because when a man comes to town with a dream, it doesn't take long for the killers of the dream to appear, too.

This isn't really a fight over race but over power. It's a fight over what education ought to be about: learning or political patronage.

By now it's evident even to a New York Times reporter who's just passing through town that the four-member majority of the school board, aka the Gang of Four, are determined to oust this school superintendent. He's been entirely too interested in improving education. And his critics were determined to restore the shoddy old order they were comfortable with. But his right to a fair and impartial hearing before being suspended got in the way.

One result is that Little Rock's school district, which finally got out of court after half a century of litigation over school integration, is now back in. Claiming the board was denying him due process of law, Dr. Brooks has got the hearing that was called to suspend him suspended itself. At least for a few more days.

A meticulous federal judge, the Hon. G. Thomas Eisele, now has warned the president of the school board that any hearings to suspend and/or fire Dr. Brooks had better be fair and impartial, not "simply a sham and pretense and therefore constitutionally invalid."

It took years, decades even, for Little Rock and Arkansas to get over Orval Faubus' historic crisis of '57.

How long will it take this community to get over this fast-developing Crisis of '07? Who knows? It's already under way and may already be out of control.

You'd think this would be the perfect time for Little Rock to show the world how far Arkansas' capital city has come since '57. But instead of a history lesson, we're offering a kind of historical re-enactment. As if we'd learned nothing in half a century.

There's still time, if not much, to call off this whole, unnecessary show. There's still time to avoid more disruption, confusion and bad feelings - all of which are mounting daily. Not to mention legal fees, potential damages, and embarrassing stories on the front page of the New York Times.

Wouldn't it be something if the city woke up, united, and aimed for a different kind of headline? For example:

Little Rock Overcomes Its Divisions/ School System Forges Ahead.

Think of all the fussin' and feudin' and lawyerin' we'd avoid.

Imagine if Little Rock's school superintendent and school board would go off on a nice weekend retreat somewhere, complete with rest and recreation, a mediator trained in resolving disputes, and the press there to report the happy ending. Cake and ice cream all around!

But for now that's just my own private dream.

In the meantime, the Crisis of '07 builds. As if a narrow but willful majority of our school board had learned nothing from the one in '57.

Please, ladies and gentlemen, one Little Rock Crisis was enough.