LITTLE ROCK — A sharply divided state Board of Education voted 5-4 Wednesday to take immediate control of the Little Rock School District.

LITTLE ROCK — A sharply divided state Board of Education voted 5-4 Wednesday to take immediate control of the Little Rock School District.


The move disbands the school board and places Dexter Suggs, the current superintendent, in an interim role and under the authority of state Education Commissioner Tony Wood. Additionally, the measure calls for creation of a citizen’s advisory council to give input regarding needs and changes in the district.


Board Chairman Sam Ledbetter cast the deciding vote to break a tie between the other eight members.


The board’s action is prompted by six schools in the Little Rock School District having been placed on a list of academically distressed schools. Those six schools are Baseline Elementary School, Cloverdale Aerospace Technology Center, Henderson Middle School, Hall High School, J.A. Fair High School and McClellan Magnet High School.


A school may be placed on the list of academically distressed schools if more than half the students fail to achieve or exceed proficiency standards on state mandated tests in math and literacy.


Before voting to take over the school, the board deadlocked 4-4, with Ledbetter not voting, on a compromise that would have created a partnership between the state board and the school district but would have left the administration intact initially — with provisions for immediate dissolution of the Little Rock School Board and dismissal of the superintendent if the district failed to make significant progress.


After the meeting, Ledbetter said his decision to cast a vote in favor of a takeover was motivated by his belief that the current situation, with six schools in the district declared to be in academic distress and test scores declining in others, demanded a strong response from the board.


"It was a difficult decision with merits on both sides of the argument," Ledbetter said. "But the one thing that was clear was that the board had to take action."


Board member Jay Barth of Little Rock, who made the compromise motion that failed, said he was disappointed that the district wasn’t given more time to make changes.


"It’s my opinion that state takeover is a bit premature," said Barth, "I thought there was the possibility of putting some things into place in the form of a partnership that had a high likelihood of moving academic achievement forward without disrupting the district."


Barth said he would have preferred giving the district the needed support to raise academic achievement without going to the point of taking over the district. He was happy, however, with the inclusion of a citizen’s advisory council, which had been a part of his compromise measure. Inclusion of the advisory council as part of the takeover motion was proposed by board member Kim Davis of Fayetteville.


"I thought that was something needed even with a functioning school board, and in the absence of a school board it becomes even more important," Barth said.


Patrons of the district, including state Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, students, teachers, and parents, addressed the board, with most urging the board to wait.


Many students told the board the schools they attended were places they considered safe havens in spite of the problems they may have, and insisting that test scores alone are a poor measure to evaluate the schools or the district.


After nearly five hours of testimony and comments, four board members — Barth, Joe Black of Newport, Alice Mahony of El Dorado and Mireya Reith of Fayetteville — favored giving the district a chance to work out its problems without state intervention. Davis, Vicki Saviers of Little Rock, Toyce Newton of Crossett and Diane Zook of Melbourne favored a takeover.


Saviers said the issue was much larger than just the six schools that are currently in distress and that the problems started as early as 2002.


"This is about the kids in those schools, their families, and their communities, but particularly about the kids in those schools," she said.


Saviers said that in 2008, four of the schools were in year six of their improvement programs due to academic distress and that one school, Cloverdale, was in year seven of academic distress and was also on the list of fiscally distressed schools.


"When they were in year seven or year eight this board granted the Little Rock School District the ability to turn it from a traditional school to a conversion charter," she said. "It’s 2015 and they’re still on the list."


Regarding Suggs and his role, Commissioner Tony Wood said he would meet with him and work on a plan to move forward and that he has no plans to dismiss the superintendent.


"He’s still the superintendent," said Wood, "just like he was an hour ago."


Suggs said after the meeting in a prepared statement, "We will continue to put children first, continue to move with a sense of urgency and continue to engage all sectors of the community. It will take all of us working together to transform the Little Rock School District.


"We have a great deal of responsibility and there will be no excuses. Failure will not be an option."