- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Little Rock lawyer hired to lead a financially strapped school district now controlled by the state said Tuesday that he’s cut about $12.5 million from the district’s budget and made other positive changes since taking the helm two months ago.

Speaking to the Political Animals Club during a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion, Baker Kurrus called himself a “nontraditional superintendent” who was focusing on running the large organization while deferring education questions to people who know better how to answer them.

Kurrus took control just a few months after the State Board of Education voted to take over the district because several of its schools were in academic distress. The move dissolved the school board and left the community divided on whether the move would be best for the students.

He replaced former Little Rock School District Superintendent Dexter Suggs, who resigned in April amid allegations he had plagiarized part of his doctoral dissertation. Kurrus said the atmosphere was grim when he started his job in early May.

“When I got down there, it was like a morgue that had been shut down,” he said. “It wasn’t a good morgue; it was a morgue that wasn’t even working. But now people are happy. And it’s just a sense of accomplishment you get from working together.”

Kurrus said Tuesday that he has purposefully withheld his opinion on the matter and has decided instead to work with staff, teachers and members of the community to improve the schools under whatever governmental structure exists. He asked the audience to help him with community support for those efforts.

Several members of the public grilled Kurrus on when they would see that improvement.

“I know some people in the room don’t want me in that job. I’m still going to ask for your help. If you’ve got a good idea, I welcome it,” he said.

The State Board voted to waive a law requiring school administrators to hold a higher degree in education. Kurrus, 61, served on the school board for 12 years through 2010 and recently headed up a financial advisory committee for the district.

In mentioning the budget cuts, he noted the district has the highest school property taxes in the state. The district is facing a deficit of about $37 million once money from a decades old desegregation lawsuit dries up in the next few years.

He said he’s also made organizational changes that stress the importance of teachers, including hiring a former Arkansas teacher of the year as a principal at one of the schools in academic distress. He said he’s also spent time trying to empower administrators below him to make decisions instead of continuing what he said was a “dysfunctional” organizational structure.

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