Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 6

On July 12, 2012, the Walton Family Foundation issued a $1.2 million check to the Southern Arkansas University Foundation to cover the salaries and operating costs for the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a Walton-funded nonprofit founded in December 2008. 

An earlier letter, dated June 25, 2012, from the WFF’s then-executive director Buddy Philpot stipulated that the funds should, if possible, be deposited into an interest-bearing account. 

Per the letter, signed by then-SAU President Dr. David Rankin, the $1.2 million was to be used to “support an effort to support startup and operational costs for the Arkansas Public School Resource Center from January 2009 through June 30, 2012. Grantee agrees to use all grant funds exclusively for the grant’s purposes. Any changes in these purposes must be authorized in advance by the Foundation in writing.”

Previously, from December 2008 until sometime in 2012, the University of Central Arkansas Foundation had served as the vehicle for disseminating Walton funds to APSRC. In December of 2008, the UCA Foundation received a $4.6 million grant from the Waltons that was to be administered in “support” of APSRC. Then-interim UCA President Tom Courtway signed off on the deal.

The Walton Family Foundation already had initially awarded a $426,141 grant to UCA in May 2008 to “plan, develop and implement the APSRC.”

A UCA news release issued in December 2008 states: 

The purpose of the APSRC is to provide comprehensive services to advance and support school choice initiatives and the implementation of high quality [sic] open enrollment  [sic] public charter schools in Arkansas, as well as providing a variety of support services critical to the fiscal and academic success of rural public schools in Arkansas.

The APSRC’s work includes supporting school choice initiatives, implementing and expanding high quality open enrollment [sic] charter schools in Arkansas, protecting and continuing support of Arkansas public school accountability measures, and providing assistance to rural public school districts and schools committed to meeting accountability provisions of Act 35 and Act 1467, the Omnibus Education Act.

As I said in a previous post, I’m not sure what poisoned the relationship between UCA and APSRC, but by the spring of 2012, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith was well on the way to drafting a memorandum of understanding with the Southern University of Arkansas Foundation.

The MOU was signed by Smith on July 20, 2012. Rankin and then-SAU Foundation Executive Director Jeanie Bismark signed off on July 24, 2012. 

The MOU opens with a reminder of Southern Arkansas University’s role as a state university:

SAU was established for the purposes of providing education opportunities at the university level on a regional and state wide [sic] basis and more adequately fulfilling its changing role as a multi-purpose, [sic] comprehensive [sic] institution of higher learning. See Ark. Code Ann. $6-65 401 et seq. Furthermore the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (“ADHE”) and the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board (“AHECB”) set forth the role and scope for SAU to include serving “regional and state employees, both public and private – including school districts seeking technical assistance” and supporting public schools through various outreach programs such as APSRC. 

The MOU then continues with an explanation that presumably seeks to justify SAU’s need to partner with the WFF and APSRC: 

To further these purposes, it is important that students entering universities receive a high quality [sic] education at the K-12 levels through well supported [sic] and adequate open-enrollment charter schools and public schools. 

All righty, then. One would hope that it is every state university’s desire that students arrive on campus with a “high-quality” education. I winced, however, when reading that this “high-quality” education would be provided by merely “adequate” open-enrollment charter schools and traditional school districts. 

Enter the SAU Foundation on its white horse … 

The SAU Foundation, a private non-profit corporation existing solely to benefit SAU, has received a grant to support the operational costs for APSRC in affiliation with SAU. 

Now let’s take a look at APSRC’s role, per the MOU: 

Consistent with the role of SAU set forth in Section 1.01 above, APSRC was formed as an Arkansas non-profit corporation and as a public charity in accordance with the provisions of Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code to do the following on behalf of the public schools in the state of Arkansas: 

(a) to provide comprehensive services and assistance to open enrollment [sic] public charter schools and also to rural school districts in the state of Arkansas (collectively the “public schools”);

 (b) to provide all forms of technical assistance to the public schools in areas such as school law, school finance, school technology, teaching, learning, accountability and testing, tracking and measuring student achievement, financial management and best practices, and other issues of importance to the public schools;

 (c) to provide forums, seminars, and other professional and educational and career opportunities for educators, administrators and parents with children attending the public schools, to provide professional development programs for the public schools; and

 (d) to engage in such other educational programs and activities as the board of directors of APSRC may from time to time determine is consistent with the overall mission of APSRC in supporting the public schools. 

You’ll notice that there’s no mention of Smith and APSRC staff attorneys’ numerous meetings with lawmakers before and during legislative sessions. Nor is there any reference to year-round meetings with Governor Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key. 

I mean, do legislators, the governor and ADE’s commissioner also require professional development courses, educational programs and activities, or help with technology, teaching and law? OK, so Key might, given his lack of any sort of background in education. But c’mon. None of these players are located on K-12 campuses. 

Also, I don’t see anything laid out in the MOU that mentions APSRC’s influential role in drafting education-related bills alongside – and for – legislators. 

While APSRC purports to be a nonprofit organization that offers professional development, resources and technical assistance to traditional public school districts and open-enrollment charters, is actually yet another lobbying arm for the WFF and serves to recruit out-of-state charter-management organizations and to prop up existing failing charter schools in Arkansas. 

But hey, given that SAU’s relationship with APSRC is in its 8th year, the university and its foundation must be OK with managing the salaries, benefits and operational costs for what is, at its core, an organization that is – by its own acknowledgement via its Schedule C filings – involved in lobbying. 

Exhibit A. 

Exhibit B.

As a reminder – 

The IRS generally frowns upon lobbying conducted by organizations with a section 501(c)(3) status. 

Per the IRS: 

In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).  A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure.  It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies. 

An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.

Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying.  For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.

Hm.

Among my many roles as the communications director at APSRC, I was charged not only with reporting on the 91st and 92nd General Assembly and the 2018 fiscal session, but also tracking bills. 

Because of this, I sat in meetings that included Smith and APSRC attorneys. During these meetings, I witnessed the following on multiple occasions: 

  • Smith explaining which bills that APSRC would be drafting or supporting during the 2017 and 2019 legislative sessions 
  • Smith explaining which bills APSRC would not take a stand on. Such bills usually were those involving private-school vouchers, which are supported by the Waltons
  • Smith declaring which bills needed to be modified or killed 
  • Smith saying that he would meet with lawmakers to discuss bills that APSRC either supported or did not support
  • Smith instructing legal staff to tweak bills that he could then take back to legislative sponsors for proposed changes
  • Smith discussing the role that LobbyUp would play in APSRC’s bill-tracking (LobbyUp provided a portal that allowed APSRC member schools to follow the bills that APSRC was tracking. Smith and LobbyUp’s Bradley Phillips on two occasions – in my presence – discussed how to lobby without using the term “lobby.” I now understand why neither seemed eager to sign an MOU for LobbyUp’s services. At one point, Phillips informed me that he and Smith had a “gentleman’s agreement” and that he didn’t need to sign an MOU.) 

And then, during the 92nd General Assembly, I listened in disbelief when Smith denied that APSRC lobbies the state legislature when a bill pertaining to education membership organizations and lobbying ran in the Senate Education Committee. The bill, sponsored by Senator Breanne Davis, stated: 

Except as provided in subdivision (a)(1) of this section, a public school district shall not use public funds to pay membership dues to a teacher’s, classified employee’s, or public school district board of directors member’s educational professional organization that uses public funds to directly or indirectly engage in lobbying.

I asked Smith whether the bill – if passed – would impact members of APSRC. He said no. I was perplexed. It was my understanding that school districts and open-enrollment charters used state funding to pay for their APSRC memberships. Memberships for traditional districts cost $2,500. Memberships for open-enrollment charters were $3,500. I couldn’t imagine a superintendent or charter director pulling money from their own pockets to cover their APSRC dues. 

Other membership organizations, such as the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, testified against the bill. Smith didn’t.

That’s likely because Smith and others at APSRC routinely engaged in behind-the-scenes lobbying, even if they weren’t urging their members to contact lawmakers to support or criticize proposed legislation.  So how did the bill not “apply” to APSRC? 

Regardless, the proposed legislation didn’t make it through the House Education Committee before the legislature adjourned. 

Now let’s look at the SAU Foundation’s nonprofit status. Per its 990 in 2009, the foundation’s purpose is to “provide financial aid and scholarships.” 

Its mission remains the same in its 2018 report

I’m curious as to how APSRC’s activities might affect not only its own tax-exempt status, but also that of the SAU Foundation. (Please, experts, chime in here. Thank you.) 

Oh, but wait – APSRC made sure to give itself a little wiggle room in the MOU by including a section titled “Other Activities of APSRC” – 

The parties recognize that APSRC is a private non-profit organization, and as a result, will not utilize any resources of SAU except for the purposes set forth herein which are consistent with the public purposes of SAU. APSRC may, however, perform with its own funds and without utilizing any resources of SAU, including the use of SAU staff while such staff are performing their functions as SAU employees, other functions consistent with APSRC’s Articles of Incorporation and 501(c)(3) status.

As such, the actions of APSRC shall not be considered the actions, opinions or positions of SAU and shall be the private action solely of APSRC. SAU recognizes that as a private corporation records and data of these activities may be kept separate and confidential consistent with any applicable law. 

This might explain – along with the lack of any confirmation that the WFF would or not approve the most recent grant application – why Smith went on a tear during 2017 and 2018 regarding how each APSRC team leader could raise enough revenue to cover 75 percent of his or her salary. 

The fact is, however, that APSRC needs SAU way more than SAU needs APSRC. 

Why? To attract quality staff. No one who has put years into state retirement or the Arkansas Teachers Retirement System is going to chuck all of that aside for a job at a nonprofit organization with dubious ties. 

(Helpful hint: If you work for such an organization and feel compelled to offer a “but” when explaining why you work there, you’re pretty much conveying to the listener that you are ashamed of what you do. I know because I found myself using that “but” clause all too many times during my years at APSRC.) 

But back to why APSRC and the Waltons rely on state university foundations to help achieve their mission of charterizing and privatizing public education …

Before being asked to lead APSRC, Smith – an attorney with a background in business administration – had put in years with the Arkansas Department of Education. So had the woman he hired to be his business manager, Lisa Walters. Factor in as well attorney Tripp Walter, who joined APSRC in 2010. Prior to that, Walter also served as an attorney at ADE.

Also, while Smith had a stable of attorneys and office support, he desperately needed respected public-school leaders to make APSRC more … palatable … to potential members. But he couldn’t lure educators to his organization if they stood to lose their retirement. 

Over the years, little tweaks here and there to state legislation have made it possible for certain state agency employees and university staff to become members of the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System (ATRS).  Full-time employees of the entities listed below are, conveniently, able to become members of the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System. So here’s a list of participating reciprocal state retirement systems: 

  • Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System
  • Arkansas Teachers Retirement System
  • Arkansas State Highway Retirement System
  • Arkansas State Police Retirement System
  • Arkansas Judicial Retirement System
  • Alternate Retirement Plan for the following:
      • Arkansas Department of Higher Education
      • Arkansas Department of Workforce Education
      • College
      • University
      • Vocational-Technical Schools

Hence, my friends, the Waltons’ need to persuade state university foundations to take on APSRC.

Per the MOU, here’s a list of Southern Arkansas University’s obligations to APSRC: 

Providing access to adequate full-time or part-time SAU staff to APSRC to perform those functions as described in Section 3 below, such staff’s salaries and benefits to be reimbursed to SAU by the SAU Foundation through grants received by the SAU Foundation for such purpose. 

Working in concert with APSRC to host conferences, events, seminars and trainings to better prepare faculty, staff and board members of traditional and charter K-12 public schools in Arkansas. 

Helping APSRC provide specific technical training in the areas of school law, school finance, school technology, teaching and learning, and other areas set forth in Section 1.04 of this MOU. 

Providing APSRC’s full-time, non-contracted staffs with equivalent benefits and privileges as are provided to SAU’s full-time employees. 

Reports will be provided as needed for year-end accounting and other reporting needs. 

Now let’s take a look at APSRC’s obligations: 

In exchange for the consideration provided herein by SAU, APSRC will provide SAU with access to the following resources and benefits and provide the following services in furtherance of the purposes of SAU, such as but not limited to: 

Obtaining grant funds for the benefit of SAU to support the expense of APSRC staff including the payment of the salaries and benefits of employees of SAU supporting APSRC. 

Obtaining grant funds to support the rental of facilities and other resources from SAU and others. 

Obtaining grant funds to support the administrative cost of administering a grant program. The amount of support will be 4.5% of salaries paid. 

Providing from time to time APSRC staff for adjunct teaching assignments and seminars at SAU. 3.05 Providing internship program offerings at APSRC for the College of Education students of SAU. 

Providing assistance to SAU for the purpose of educating the public on public school issues, enhancing the teacher education program, and the overall advancement of teaching and learning in public schools. 

Providing technical and other assistance to public schools consistent with the purposes of 

Reporting to SAU on request, but at least annually, those activities of SAU which involve SAU resources provided in accordance with Article 2 above. 

Should either party want to sever ties, the MOU details the process: 

This MOU is effective as of June 30, 2012 for fringe benefits and July 1, 2012 for other purposes and will continue in effect until either party terminates it for any reason by giving the other party at least ninety (90) days prior written notice of termination. 

This MOU may be immediately terminated by either party in the event that grant funding of the SAU staff working with APSRC is no longer available. 

SAU may immediately terminate this MOU in the event it determines that any SAU resources provided hereunder are not being utilized by APSRC 

 

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 5

When people ask what newsrooms are like, I usually explain the environment and dynamics thusly: 

Imagine that every day represents a holiday dinner and that every single person in your lovably quirky yet highly dysfunctional family is present. 

There’s camaraderie, yes. Lots of shared recollections and laughter. There are debates during “budget meetings” – the twice-a-day gatherings during which editors decide what stories will run and in what sections. Those contentious meetings often reminded me of the moment that politics creeps into the Thanksgiving-dinner conversation. 

At deadline, you’ll hear editors and reporters arguing over cuts, quotes and edits, and the copy desk staff shouting that they need that story right now, dammit. 

Regardless, the paper gets put to bed and everyone comes back the next day for another lively turkey dinner. 

I always thought that the corporate world would be more … well, refined. 

My three years at the Walton-funded Arkansas Public School Resource Center proved otherwise. 

In the rough-and-tumble world of newspapering, women learn early what it takes to get ahead – and stay ahead – of their male colleagues. You outthink them, outdrink them and outrun them. And, eventually, you not only earn, but demand, their respect. 

That is why the culture at APSRC caught me off-guard. I always thought that the corporate world – and make no mistake: APSRC, while a nonprofit, is very much a corporate and political organization – would be different. 

By the end of my first year, I realized, however, that APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith has a major problem with women. As in, if Webster’s ever asked me to write the definition of “misogynist,” I would need only two words: “Scott Smith.”

In this post, I am sharing only my experiences with Smith because these are my stories to tell. I say that because I am not the only woman who has had issues with him. The fact that Smith has a problem with women is well known even by those who don’t work for APSRC.

The Waltons, of course, don’t care. Smith is just the sort of ruthless person they need to accomplish their goal of destroying public education. 

So my story –

Three times in team meetings, Smith put his hand on my knee while making some sort of point. I didn’t interpret it as a sexual gesture. Rather, his behavior struck me as proprietary. 

You belong to me. You belong to this organization. You belong to the Waltons. You are company property. 

Bear in mind, this is a man who would call meetings, only to cancel at the last minute if something came up, and yet throw a tantrum if when, on a whim, he wanted to talk to a female employee who had left the office for lunch.

He complained incessantly when female employees called in sick or had to accommodate the needs of their children – illness, doctor’s appointments, etc…

He once mocked one of his female employees for missing several days of work after suffering a severe concussion.

“I don’t know what’s going on with her this time,” he announced to a group of us. “Something about getting hit on the head with a vase. It’s always something.”

You see, there are different rules at APSRC for men and women.

For example, men are allowed to close the doors to their offices. Women? No. I can’t tell you how many times Smith would find a reason to knock on my door, ask a question and then very pointedly leave the door open. 

And then there was the tracking of employees’ leave and sick time. Women – most of whom are mothers or caring for elderly family members – are closely monitored, questioned and criticized – so much so that I told my husband that Smith’s obsession with knowing his female employees’ every move came across as creepy and stalkerish. And God help you if you didn’t reply to an email or respond to a phone call while out sick, on vacation or in bed. 

Again, Smith’s paranoia didn’t seem to stem from sexual origins. It was like he thought his female employees were out sneaking around to huddle in illicit meetings with politicians, educators and foes of APSRC. That kind of paranoia suggests to me that Smith, the Waltons and their backers have many things to hide. Or maybe he just believes that women are lazy or incompetent. I honestly don’t know. It was just … weird. 

On one occasion, I mixed up the dates for an Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)  meeting I had intended to cover. As I sheepishly made my way back from the Capitol to APSRC, I heard someone calling my name. 

It was Smith. 

“What are you doing here?” he asked in an urgent manner. 

“Oh, hey,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Why are you here?” he pressed. “Who were you meeting with?”

“Um. No one. I thought there was an ESSA meeting today. But it turns out it’s next week.”

This explanation seemed to (temporarily) satisfy him. 

In the end, two incidents served as the catalyst for my sudden decision to quit. 

In May 2019, I underwent a partial knee replacement. Smith was not happy about the two weeks I took off for the surgery and recovery. The fact that I then had to go twice a week for an hour of physical therapy pissed him off even more. 

Apparently, osteoarthritis is the equivalent of female “hysteria” or “weakness.” 

At the first staff meeting after my return, Smith pointedly asked if anyone else would need to take significant time off over the summer. (I resisted a maniacal, just-for-kicks  urge to announce an unexpected pregnancy. He probably would have found or manufactured a reason to fire me on the spot.) 

A few weeks into my physical therapy, Walters informed me that she didn’t have my SAU HR  password. That’s because months earlier, when I forgot my password, I had changed it. I had no idea that Walters, by her own admission, knew the log-ins and passwords for every APSRC employee. 

“I just want to make sure you have enough leave time to cover these appointments,” she said. 

“I planned ahead, I assured her. “I’m good.” 

Bear in mind, I had given her the dates of my physical therapy appointments. It’s not like she was checking with HR to see when I would be out.

Still, she sent multiple email requests for my new password. 

Remember, per the MOU between APSRC and the Southern Arkansas University Foundation, SAU’s HR staff is charged with keeping up with leave and sick time. However, one of Walters’ primary duties is to keep Smith informed of employees’ whereabouts, whether she’s monitoring arrival and departure times from the office or leave and sick time. 

Toward the end – or maybe right after, I don’t recall – the 2019 legislative session – I was exhausted and in chronic pain. In short, I was struggling. By then, I was counting down the days to my surgery and using a cane around the house. (I was too vain to take it to work.) 

One morning, after I had called in to say I would be using sick time to come in late, Smith came into my office to inquire after my well-being. I told him I was managing. 

And then he walked around my desk and stood behind me. He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed it, and said, “I was beginning to think I would have to fire you.”

That male hand on my shoulder clinched my decision that it was time to get out of there. 

Because here’s the thing – there is no way to get help from HR if you are a woman working for Smith at APSRC. 

I thought long and hard about my predicament. SAU’s HR staff work for the university, which is located in Magnolia, a good 115 miles away. Was I supposed to drive down there to file a grievance with people I’d never talked to, much less met? Should I just call? Email? 

And from what I’d heard, the HR department wasn’t terribly thrilled with the fact that its staff had had to add APSRC to its workload back in 2012.

I imagined a scenario in which I swept in to file a complaint, only to find the Waltons’ enforcer, Kathy Smith, on hand to inform SAU staff as to how they should respond. You think I kid. Kathy sees all, knows all, and has an ability to materialize at any moment that the Waltons and their yes men might be the recipients of criticism.

Granted, I suffer from PTSD due to a childhood trauma that involved physical and sexual abuse by a man 9 years my senior. So I second-guessed myself. Was I too “sensitive,” maybe? 

But no – the hand on my knee, the hand on my shoulder – my instinct screamed that this was just wrong and not normal in the workplace. 

So I fumed, kept silent and told my husband repeatedly that I wasn’t sure whether I could remain at APSRC until I found a new job. 

When FOIA’ing SAU after I quit – without a job – I asked about its stance toward workplace violence. 

“There is no document that exempts any part of SAU from workplace violence,” was the response I received from Roger Giles, Vice President for Administration and General Counsel. He referred me to the university handbook.

It states: 

Workplace Violence 

The University is committed to providing a safe, healthful workplace that is free from violence or threats of violence. Reports of threatening or violent incidents are taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. Individuals who engage in violent or threatening behavior may be removed from the premises, and may be subject to dismissal or other disciplinary action, arrest, and/or criminal prosecution.

The University does not tolerate behavior that: 1. is violent, 2. threatens violence, 3. harasses or intimidates others, 4. interferes with an individual’s legal rights of movement or expression, and 5. disrupts the workplace, the academic environment, or the University’s ability to provide services to the public. Violent or threatening behavior can include physical acts, oral or written statement, or gestures and expressions. Any violent or threatening behavior must be reported immediately to the University Police Department

I’ve since imagined myself showing up at the SAU PD to report that my boss, one of the Waltons’ lead henchmen, comes across as controlling and, sometimes, threatening.

No way would that have ended well for me.

But SAU’s entanglement with APSRC suffers from many other problems than those between Smith and the women he employs or encounters in his role as executive director/lobbyist.

Tomorrow, I’ll delve into the reciprocal agreement between the two entities. Neither APSRC nor SAU is actually abiding by that MOU signed in 2012. 

Like everything else involving APSRC, this agreement is just a cover for what the organization is really up to.

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 4 – Cutting off the head of the snake

UPDATE: My report on APSRC’s relationship with the SAU Foundation will be posted tomorrow. I’m still piecing all of my documents together.

The Arkansas State Board of Education, during what appeared to be a meticulously staged meeting, voted Thursday to return the Little Rock School District to local control. 

This about-face occurred because state leaders and board members feared further public shaming and opted instead for an awkward retreat.

Stakeholders celebrated the vote, only to get a clapback from the state board when it next voted to oust the Little Rock Education Association. (As we all know, Governor Asa Hutchinson and his GOP underlings loathe unions.) 

Remember, the Waltons have invested millions in organizations that lobby specifically for the Arkansas school -“choice” movement. Despite today’s vote to reinstate local control, the Walton Family Foundation will persist in its efforts to dismantle LRSD and other districts that might appeal to charter-school leaders and the private-school crowd.

Again, they don’t just want your students and the funding that follows them. They want your facilities. (More on that below.) 

Right now, given public sentiment, the Waltons will let things quiet down. But you can bet that the various nonprofits that they fund already are stepping up their behind-the-scenes efforts to get their projects back on track. 

It is imperative that the various grassroots organizations involved in fending off the Waltons’ school grabs remain intersectional and vigorous in their efforts to protect their districts, teachers, students, and, again, their buildings. You have won a battle. Not the war.

Here’s a handy little instructional guide for cutting the head off the snake. Below are the bullet points.

  • Publicly shame the Southern Arkansas University Foundation for its willingness to accept and funnel Walton money into the Arkansas Public School Resource Center. Click here to read my first post that mentioned SAU.)  I’m told that the reason that the University of Central Arkansas – which had a similar arrangement from 2008-2012 – pulled out of its MOU with the Walton Family Foundation when APSRC got involved in activities that made the university uncomfortable. This also would put pressure on other state universities that might be approached by APSRC if SAU ended this odd and dysfunctional relationship. (More on this tomorrow.) 
  • Organize a protest in Hot Springs on the day of APSRC’s annual fall conference. This year, the event will be held on October 23, 2019, at the Hot Springs Convention Center. Governor Asa Hutchinson and ADE Commissioner Johnny Key are scheduled to be there. In years past, they’ve spoken during the opening session. They and other attendees will enter the Plaza Lobby and then proceed to Horner Hall. In the afternoon, there’s always a legislative panel. It’s usually composed of GOP men and a token woman. (Senator Jane English) I suggested that we invited Senator Joyce Elliott each year that I organized the conference. My request was denied every time. Smith wouldn’t even entertain the prospect of inviting Senator Linda Chesterfield. He’s scared of Elliott. He’s terrified of Chesterfield.) In my opinion, anyway. I’ll post more on the specifics of the conference Saturday evening. 
  • Protect your buildings. During the 91st General Assembly, a bill that eventually became Act 542 stipulates that open-enrollment charter schools may buy or lease buildings belonging to traditional public schools if such buildings are deemed to be unused or underutilized. Click here to read the rule promulgated by the Arkansas Department of Education. Click here to see what the Arkansas Commission for Public School Facilities and Transportation has since posted on its website. And… guess who is in bed with APSRC? I’ll offer more info and some tips on Sunday evening. 
  • Approach the many traditional public school districts that agree to be APSRC members each year out of fear. Offer support. APSRC needs those districts more than they need APSRC. I can say this after having gone through three years of membership recruiting. Remind districts that even if they live and operate in rural areas, they are not immune to the Walton endeavor to do away with public education altogether. More on this Monday evening.

Tomorrow: I will explain SAU’s relationship with APSRC. (I’ll also link to pertinent documents.) 

 

 

 

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – Part 3

In late 2016, the Arkansas Public School Resource Center’s department heads – aka “team leaders” – were asked to write goals for a grant application for another three-year round of Walton funding. 

This proved to be a rather confusing and frustrating process due to the fact that we were required to work in silos. Given that some departments would eventually have to rely on others in order to meet their goals, it seemed odd to discourage collaboration. 

Before the grant application was submitted on July 1, 2017, each team leader received the portion of the application that would be relevant to his/her own departments if the grant was approved. We never were permitted to see each other’s goals, measurements, outcomes, etc… (Unless, of course, we talked among ourselves.) 

So BAM! – the application is finally completed and submitted … and …

… crickets. 

Afterward, team leaders would periodically ask one another if the application had been approved. No one knew. 

Despite this, we were instructed to begin doing whatever was needed to meet our goals. In my case, this meant hiring a local firm to build a new website that would cost an estimated $50,000. I realize that’s peanuts to the Waltons and their minions, but I really didn’t feel comfortable proceeding without any idea as to whether the grant request had been approved. 

If I had any hope of getting the website done by the date required to meet my grant goal – December 31, 2017 – I would need to hire someone by August 2017. 

APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith – an attorney with a degree in business administration –  told me to move forward. 

But  when I gave him the contract documents to sign, he looked at them and asked, “What are these?”

I then explained to the expert in law and business what the documents were.

“I’m not signing these,” Smith declared, flinging the papers aside. 

I now realize that the grant hadn’t yet been approved, which meant Smith didn’t want his name on anything involving a $50,000 price tag. 

Still, he subsequently met with the website firm’s employees – on more than one occasion – and told APSRC’s other team leaders to begin doing their part to ensure that the new website would launch on schedule. 

Just as the project neared completion in late 2017, Smith asked me for copies of the contract. I pointed out that he had refused to sign it. 

This sent him into a tizzy, even though he acknowledged that he had shoved the documents aside. Smith then called in one of APSRC’s attorneys and asked him to draft a contract, which was then sent to the firm. 

Next up was an angry phone call to the firm during which Smith lectured the owner for not signing the contract ASAP. At this time, the owner was sitting at the bedside of his dying father.

“I know you’ve got a lot going on with your dad,” Smith said. “But I’m dealing with similar issues in my family and I still manage to get things done.” 

I happened to be sitting in on this call. By the time it ended, I was absolutely mortified. 

In early January 2018, the website launched – a week behind schedule, yes – but it exceeded my expectations. 

To this day, I don’t know whether the Waltons ever signed off on the grant application or not.

I asked several times in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to see the entire grant application so that I would know what I needed to do to assist other departments in meeting their goals. I never received one. Nor did I ever hear an explanation as to why not.

Why all the secrecy?  Because if you read the application in full, you’ll notice that that APSRC’s focus isn’t on all public schools. 

While the number of traditional public school districts – with or without conversion charters on their campuses – far exceeds the number of charter schools in Arkansas,  a reading of the grant application will make it clear who gets priority standing. 

Yes, 100 percent of Arkansas’ open-enrollment charters are members of APSRC. But they are far fewer in number than the state’s many rural school districts, and, really, if they want Walton support, they have no choice but to become members. Also, bear in mind that more than 85 percent of APSRC’s members are traditional public school districts that may or may not have conversion charters on their campuses. 

I finally managed to snag a copy of the entire grant application and feel compelled to share this little gem from “Request/Purpose” section: 

APSRC has long been a strong advocate for the improvement of educational policy and advocacy for issues at the core of our work which matches the Walton Family Foundation’s principles of accountability, transparency, choice, and sustainability. 

Before moving on to the next topic, I’m just going to note that a lack of transparency and accountability will one day be APSRC’s downfall. 

As a journalist, I know that people who are secretive, deceptive and paranoid are more than likely hiding something. 

And to describe Smith as secretive, deceptive and paranoid would be a dramatic understatement. 

Before the 2017 General Assembly convened, he wanted to know if any of us knew lawmakers or were friends of them. He also instructed us not to talk with them. 

Telling a former newspaper reporter and Arkansas Department of Correction legislative liaison that she is not “allowed” to talk to lawmakers was exactly the wrong thing to do. Because by the 2019 legislative session, I understood that if public school districts were going to get any sort of explanation as to what was going on, they would have to hear from the people who listen – and talk to – legislators. 

Granted, I wasn’t “allowed’ to interview lawmakers. But I sure made use of what they said during the 2019 session. 

Smith didn’t like this. By the end of the session, he had ordered me to start sending him drafts of stories before I sent them out. He started telling me to cut certain quotes from certain lawmakers and, on one occasion, told me to take my byline off of a story that he considered to be “controversial.”

“Why?” I protested.

“I’m just trying to protect you. ”

Er – from who?

At one point during the 2019 session, Senator Joyce Elliott, a member of the Education Committee who has actually worked in public schools, called a news conference. I covered it and sent a story out to our members. 

The next day, Smith asked why I had quoted Elliott.

“Well, she’s the person who called the news conference,” I said. “It would be kind of weird to not quote her.”

“Well, nobody likes her,” Smith shot back. 

Said no newspaper editor ever.

This is getting long and time is getting short – my family is still waiting on dinner – but this is what I want those of you residing in – or supporting – the Little Rock School District to know. 

Yes, APSRC has some talented folks on staff. And they do a great job of trying to provide professional development. That said, the organization’s primary role is to lobby on behalf of school “choice.” It is not a friend to public schools. It is using them to help shroud its true mission.

During my three years at APSRC, Smith always seemed to be “meeting someone at the Capitol” or “having a meeting with the governor” or “meeting with (ADE Commissioner) Johnny Key” or asking APSRC’s legal staff to draft bills that certain GOP lawmakers were willing to run. 

During the 2019 session, a lawmaker introduced a bill that would prohibit school districts from using their funding to pay for dues to membership organizations that engage in lobbying the Legislature. (Read: Membership organizations that are actually representing their members and giving them a voice.)

All sorts of membership organizations testified against the bill. I asked Smith if the proposed legislation would have an effect on APSRC.

He brushed me off. “This has nothing to do with us,” he said.

As various supporters of public education testified against the bill, Smith either left the committee room or hugged the back wall. I was both fascinated and appalled.

Supporters of a return to local control within LRSD – please hear me: 

APSRC wants your facilities. Each year, the organization’s charter director is required to court and bring in potential CMOs. These charter operators always tour the same two cities – Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Sometimes they meander down to the Delta, but they are most interested in Little Rock and Pine Bluff. Again, read the grant application. It’s a road map to Walmartized education. 

Meanwhile, APSRC is charged with propping up any failing charters. Why? Because school facilities are a prize to win and keep. Just look at how things unfolded in the Covenant Keepers/Friendship drama. (More on that in another post.) 

I’ll end by saying this: APSRC wants your buildings. It wants your students and the funding that goes with them. It does not care if its actions result in re-segregation. It will do everything it can to help the State Board do away with legit unions.

Think of it this way – open-enrollment charters are merely placeholders in the Waltons’ endeavor to dismantle public education.

  • Get the building.
  • Get the students.
  • Get the funding that follows the students.
  • Prop up the failing charters. Continue the pursuit of private-school vouchers. 
  • Rinse. Repeat. 

I will post again tomorrow evening and will share whatever is pertinent to the State Board’s decision and its repercussions. 

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement – PART 2

Need to catch up? Read part 1 by clicking here

After taking a job with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center in August 2016, I spent the next few months planning the annual statewide education conference that APSRC hosts each year at the Hot Springs Convention Center. 

This year’s event is set for October 23, 2019, should anyone feel a pressing need to publicly ask Governor Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key any questions about their actions regarding the Little Rock School District over the past five years.

They usually speak during the opening session. Can’t afford a ticket? No worries. You can greet Hutchinson and Key as they and other attendees enter via the Plaza Lobby, which is where the continental breakfast is served, just outside the Horner Hall Ballroom. 

There also will be an afternoon panel “discussion” during which a bevy of GOP-only lawmakers – most, if not all, of them non-educators – will be on hand to talk about the future of public education in Arkansas.) 

But I digress… 

It wasn’t until after the conference that I started focusing my attention on my other primary duty, which was to cover and report on State Board of Education meetings, interim joint-education committee meetings, ESSA meetings and so on…

This is when I learned that I was supposed to delicately spoon-feed our members when writing my news reports. 

APSRC uses Constant Contact to email its members. Recipients are divided into various groupings. Some emails are sent only to open-enrollment charter schools. Others only to traditional districts. And still others to anyone and everyone. 

This is where things get dicey. 

You see, APSRC Executive Director Scott Smith is but one of three Arkansas Walton stepchildren vying for the attention of wealthy absentee parents. 

You’ve got Smith representing APSRC, which purports to represent and serve both traditional public school districts and open-enrollment charters. 

Next up is Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns, who happens to be the nephew of Arkansas State Board of Education Chairman Diane Zook. 

And then we have The Reform Alliance, which currently uses a voucher program to “help” special-education students, foster kids, etc… attend private schools  – many of which are faith-based – and to give up any rights they have under the IDEA Act. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

All three organizations lobby state lawmakers on behalf of the Waltons. All three are at all times pursuing often contradictory/opposing passages of legislation. All three are always, always at odds with one another. 

The 2017 General Assembly proved to be a challenge for me. If I wrote about private-school-voucher bills, Smith fretted. I found that interesting. I mean, if APSRC truly represents and supports public schools, you’d think he would be right up front testifying before lawmakers with other membership organizations – the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, for example. Or maybe the Arkansas School Board Association. 

And you would think that I would be able to freely report on such bills, testimony and reactions. 

Nope.  Because – horrors! – I might offend Arkansas Learns and/or The Reform Alliance. In other words, I might have angered the generous benefactor of all three competing nonprofits – the Walton Family Foundation. 

Smith and Newton appeared – to me, anyway – to have honed an ability to materialize out of thin air just in time to witness how things went down in the education committees while simultaneously avoiding the offering of any testimony. 

Bear in mind, they were being monitored at all times by Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. She and Newton also made it a practice to attend APSRC’s quarterly policy board meetings. 

During the 2017 session, I eventually stopped sending Smith my news reports before I emailed them to APSRC members. It was just easier and less confusing that way.

It was around that time when I started to question why Southern Arkansas University had been deemed the public entity that would provide  APSRC with HR services. SAU also kept track of our leave time and managed our benefits and retirement plans. 

I would later learn that the SAU Foundation is the recipient of Walton grant funds intended for APSRC. SAU is charged with disseminating the money and administering HR services for APSRC staff. 

When I started working for APSRC, I was given the same (presumably) packet handed to new university employees. 

So why funnel funding through state university foundations? Remember, from 2008 until 2012, the University of Central Arkansas served as APSRC’s Walton-funding dispensary.

Let’s take a look at APSRC’s staff positions to work through this one.

You’ve got Smith, the director, a former state employee (ADE). Then there’s the office manager and administrative assistant, one of whom also worked for several years at ADE.

Next up is the legal staff – chief counsel and at least one staff attorney, if not two. 

There’s also the finance staff, which is currently composed of a director (a former longtime public school superintendent) and two specialists, one of whom spent most of her career working for public schools in Arkansas.

You’ve got two tech guys, both of whom formerly worked in public schools in Arkansas. 

And then there’s the Teaching and Learning Department, where, currently, you’ll find two longtime public-school educators. Sometimes, there are more, depending on grants and funding. 

Now let’s look at the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System and who is eligible to participate. 

Click here

Back with me? OK, so there you go. Why, as a longtime Arkansas public-school employee or ADE employee, would you give up your ATRS or state retirement package to go and work for a controversial nonprofit? 

You probably wouldn’t.

 BUT … if you could hang onto what you’ve already invested in by working for an entity that would allow you to keep contributing and participating in your retirement plan – wouldn’t you find that nonprofit-employment offer a bit more palatable? 

I had no skin in the game where retirement was concerned. But I can tell you that I made more money at APSRC than I ever made working for newspapers or the Arkansas Department of Correction. And yeah, the benefits and leave time were pretty fabulous. 

Problem is, in order to enjoy all of this, you have to sell your soul.

Tomorrow – APSRC’s Walton grant application process and an explanation of its actual goals

 

Inside the shadowy world of the Arkansas school-“choice” movement

Simply put, I needed a job. 

In December 2014, I’d wrapped up a 21-year career as a newspaper reporter. I spent 15 of those years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

After leaving the paper, I served as the public information officer and legislative liaison for the Arkansas Department of Correction. My office also responded to the phone calls, emails and letters we received daily from inmates’ families. 

One year in, I realized I just wasn’t cut out to work at a state agency. 

So my husband, kids and I briefly moved to Texas and I took a job as a SPED inclusion instructional aide in a Title I public school. I loved working with the kids, and I truly thought I’d found my calling. I hoped to get certified and become a teacher. Alas, all those California techies who have moved to the Austin area over the past couple of decades have driven up the cost of housing to a level that we could never afford on a teacher’s salary. 

So we returned to Arkansas, moved back into the home we’d bought in 2005, and I started the job hunt once again. 

In July 2016, I received a call from Scott Smith, the executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center. He told me that an old friend who once worked with me at the D-G had recommended me for a position at APSRC. An interview revealed that Smith needed not only a communications director but also someone who could oversee the planning of the annual fall conference. Also, I would cover the Arkansas State Board of Education meetings, the Legislature and anything else involving education. 

Smith seemed quite pleased with my background as a “real” journalist.

“Do you have a problem with charter schools?” he asked during the interview. 

“No?” I replied, uncertain. 

“And you think you can organize a statewide education conference?”

“Yes,” I said, more declaratively this time, thinking of the many Girl Scout events I’d helped to plan and supervise as a troop leader and member of the North Hills Service Unit.

I didn’t know a whole lot about charters at that time. I did have some qualms based on the fact that the D-G’s publisher, Walter Hussman, was an avid supporter of the charter movement. Hussman’s children all attended out-of-state private schools. It seemed to me that he wasn’t really in a position to judge what qualifies as a “good” or “equitable” public education. Also, rich people are insanely out of touch when it comes to us “regular folks.”

On the other hand, I once signed up my kids for a charter lottery because one of them was struggling at school and I thought a new environment would help. Our 2016 move to Texas served as a reset button, however, so when we returned to Arkansas, my children also returned to the traditional public school district in which they had grown up. 

But like I said, I needed a job. I also figured that a position at APSRC would allow me to remain (somewhat) in the world of public education. I thought maybe I could work toward becoming a teacher here. (I can now say that if I ever decide to pursue a teaching career, I will not be doing so in Waltonsas.) 

My first day at APSRC was on August 3, 2016. I quit nearly three years later, on June 14, 2019. That night, I sent Smith an email in which I not only announced my resignation but also shared my many reasons for quitting so abruptly. I made sure to copy in all of the female staff members so that Smith couldn’t attempt to seize the narrative. Turnover at Walton-funded nonprofits and charters is rather, well … high. And at APSRC, turnover is especially high where women are concerned.

Immediately, I felt a burden lift.

No more working in an environment steeped in secrecy and paranoia. No more placating a male boss who acted more like an abusive stalker ex-boyfriend than an actual leader. No more weird workplace silos that left “team leaders” completely in the dark as to what other departments were doing. No more legislative education committee meetings that reeked of conspiracy, deception and stale men’s suits in dire need of dry-cleaning. 

I think the turning point for me was when, at the beginning of APSRC’s annual membership drive in the spring/summer of 2019, Smith said on three occasions – in my presence – that “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” 

“Them” refers to public school districts – as in APSRC’s current member districts and potential member districts.

As a journalist, this really bothered me. My old-school B.A. in print journalism represents – to me, anyway – an oath to be accurate, fair and credible. 

I spent decades looking for facts. I believe in transparent and ethical journalistic practices.

Baffle them with bullshit?

Um, that’s a hard no. 

We’re talking about the education of Arkansas’ children. We’re talking about the teachers who work long hours for pitiful pay. We’re talking about inadequate funding, inadequate facilities and the fact that the state has taken its largest school district hostage just so that it can take it apart and reinstate segregation in the Little Rock School District.

There will be no “baffle them with bullshit” from my little corner of the universe. 

Also, covering the 2019 legislative session left me disturbed and downright angry about what is happening in public education. The 2017 General Assembly gave me serious pause. The 2019 session revealed the seamiest side of the school-”choice” movement.

In this post and those that will follow, I’m going to share the details of my three years at APSRC. Since quitting, I’ve learned that most people – even those in education – don’t realize how APSRC is structured or how it operates. Yes, it’s a nonprofit primarily funded by the Waltons. But it’s also a powerful and influential force where the governor and state Legislature are concerned. 

Also, did you know that there is an Oklahoma Public School Resource Center? I ask you to take a moment to reflect on how public education is faring there. 

Based on what I witnessed during my three years at the organization, I feel comfortable saying that  APSRC’s purported mission – providing resources and services to public schools – is just a half-hearted cover for the agency’s true purpose – to serve as a lobbyist for the Waltons and their efforts to dismantle public education. That includes strong-arming the governor, GOP lawmakers and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key. 

The fact that Smith has no scruples or shame is actually to the Waltons’ benefit. He may be a jerk who would be brought to heel by your average functioning HR department, but he’s also in it for the end game – the destruction of public schools. The fact that he belittles women and minorities is, to the Waltons, irrelevant. 

I recall one “team leader” meeting during which we discussed possible speakers for the annual fall conference and its breakout sessions. 

Smith told us about one prospect and then put our potential session leader on the speakerphone. 

After hanging up, Smith asked, “What do you think?”

One of the team leaders asked, “Is he black?”

I knew why she was asking. Arkansas educators desperately need to hear from black teachers and school administrators. Arkansas educators also wish to hire black teachers and administrators.

But Smith took her question the wrong way, based on his own apparent prejudices. 

“Yes, he’s black,” Smith said. “But – *pause* he went to Yale.” 

*insert awkward silence here*

I’ve spent the past several weeks sending out FOIA requests in an effort to learn more about the nonprofit for which I worked. We weren’t privy to a lot of the details about the organization or even our job descriptions. I spent two years asking to see the most recent Walton grant application – submitted in 2017 with my and other team leaders’ input – to no avail. I never did find out whether it was actually funded. When you work for a nonprofit, you generally would like to know what your goals, measurements and outcomes are. I really don’t think my request was unreasonable.

I am still going through documents and emails, but given what is happening this week regarding the Little Rock School District, I feel compelled to start posting now. I will link to any documents I discuss. 

So – let’s talk about APSRC and its membership. Who, exactly, are APSRC’s members? 

All Arkansas charter schools are, of course, members, even though they really don’t have any choice in the matter. If you run an open-enrollment charter school and want Walton funding, you join APSRC for $3,500 a year. I’m told that several charter directors aren’t terribly … fond … of Smith. But again, if they want continued funding and support, they have to belong to APSRC. 

The majority of APSRC’s members, however, are traditional rural school districts. 

That said, even the state’s largest urban districts also can become members via  “technical-assistance” contracts with APSRC. The North Little Rock School District is one such example. 

Members of traditional districts – many of which operate conversion charters on their campuses – pay $2,500 a year. Those with technical-assistance contracts negotiate an MOU with the fees contingent on services and manpower provided by APSRC.

More than 85 percent of Arkansas’ public school districts are members of APSRC. 

The Arkansas Public School Resource Center was founded in December 2008, thanks to a $4.5 million donation from the Walton Family Foundation. At the time, APSRC was billed as an arm of the University of Central Arkansas, headed by then-interim President Tom Courtway. 

Walton funds were sent to the UCA Foundation, where they were then administered to support APSRC at UCA. At the same time, APSRC announced that Scott Smith –  who joined ADE in 2000 as a staff attorney and went on to become the chief counsel in 2002 – would be APSRC’s executive director.

Smith is an attorney whose bachelor’s degree is in business administration. He has absolutely no experience in education. 

Of course, neither does ADE Commissioner Johnny Key. 

Per a 2008 news release drafted by UCA: “The purpose of the APSRC is to provide comprehensive services to advance and support school-choice initiatives and the implementation of high-quality open-enrollment public charter schools in Arkansas, as well as providing a variety of  support services critical to the fiscal and academic success of rural public schools in Arkansas.”

For reasons I have not yet uncovered, APSRC and the UCA Foundation severed ties in 2012. Smith then approached the Southern Arkansas University Foundation with a proposal. 

At the bottom of this post is the MOU signed off by APSRC staff and the SAU Foundation. In my next post, I will share how this MOU translated into the actual operations of the two entities. I’ll also explain why the Waltons seek state university foundation partnerships to further their school-“choice” ideology.

Just know this – the school-choice movement doesn’t target only the wealthy or the GOP. I will share in later posts how charter proponents have lured Democrats and progressives into the movement. I’ll also give you a peek into the Walton Family Foundation/APSRC grant/funding process.

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