- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 29, 2016

In on the action

It’s hard to say whether the second Bentonville Film Festival, scheduled in May, will grow so much it will be in a league of its own, but organizers and local supporters hope the event will be an even bigger hit than last year’s inaugural effort.

Geena Davis, the actress who has devoted herself to broadening opportunities for women and expanding diversity in the film industry, expects attendance at the festival she co-founded to more than double. Last year, attendance was roughly 37,000. Preparations for the May 3-8 event are in their final few weeks.

Festival officials have announced the festival will feature 35 films and expand its platform with the addition of a short film competition, three community events and a new Diversity and Inclusion Summit to be held for senior-level decision-makers from multiple industries.

Promoters in Bentonville know a good thing when they see it, so they’re spending $10,000 on advertising the film festival to the people of the region. They’re taking the message to places like Little Rock, Tulsa and Kansas City with a goal of convincing more people to visit Bentonville to experience the festival’s offerings.

Bentonville has so much going for it - and the region - already. The impact of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art cannot be overstated and Wal-Mart is its own draw. Last year, local officials estimated the coverage the festival received accrued to Bentonville’s benefit to the tune of $4 million.

Bentonville is primarily known as the home of Wal-Mart, but goodness, how it is growing into so much more, largely with the help of the Walton family and the company itself. Indeed, Wal-Mart is one of the major sponsors of the Bentonville Film Festival. Bentonville as a whole, however, benefits from the spreading word about how this festival supports the cause of women and diversity in films, television and other media.

This is also the kind of event that builds a stronger sense of community, as it requires the involvement of volunteers and inspires local businesses to creatively seek ways to engage visitors and, yes, make some money off the festivities. For a few days in May, the focus of Bentonville is largely on diversity and the vital role women play not just in the entertainment and media industry, but in every aspect of life. It is a worthy cause to educate and advocate so that the ranks of decision-makers and those engaged in making films and other productions grow in their number of women and others from diverse backgrounds.

James Brown knew what he was talking about when he sang “This is a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.”

A May film festival in Bentonville, Arkansas. Is it going to change the world overnight? No, but Geena Davis and other leaders are in year two of groundwork that will, in the long run, have a positive influence in media and beyond. We’d say that’s a pretty good partnership for Bentonville to be involved in.

And as the message of the film festival spreads, so will the awareness of Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas as something more - and something deeper - than just part of the expanse the people on the east and west coasts typically fly over.

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Jonesboro Sun, March, 27, 2016

Jonesboro, NEA have much to be thankful for this Easter season

As miraculous as it may sound, the recent announcements of road infrastructure improvements and economic development achievements have come to Jonesboro without costing taxpayers a single additional penny in sales tax.

Of course, we’re referencing last November’s miracle at the polls when voters soundly defeated the city’s proposed 1-cent sales tax hike to fund road improvements and economic development.

It’s ironic how “the-sky-is-falling” rhetoric of the pro-sales tax camp/recipients turned out to be little more than Chicken Little running around with his head cut off.

But enough of opening old wounds and applying salt.

What we should all be grateful for this Easter season, in addition to the promise of everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, are the many blessings Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas have received in the past several months.

Jonesboro has always wanted, needed really, a high-end hotel/convention center. Many city, chamber and economic development officials have worked tirelessly for years to attract such a complex to further enhance the progress of our city.

Now we’ve got two coming, count ‘em, TWO, neither of which taxpayers had to dig deep into their pockets to fund. One is essentially getting about $800,000 in what will wind up being the abatement of hotel bed taxes, and the other will be the beneficiary of a $495,000 grant from a federal agency for site preparation at Arkansas State University.

Ironically, the first project’s $800,000 will be repaid by the second project’s hotel bed taxes. After a few years, the Jonesboro Advertising and Promotions Commission will be rolling in cash to fund other worthwhile projects and events that come to our city.

What a deal!

Of course, that’s if both hotel/convention centers make it. We’re still not convinced both will build and, if so, both survive.

City officials were also recently notified by the Arkansas Highway Department that Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas are going to be getting millions of dollars in highway improvement funds that will go toward projects the city had on its defeated sales tax funding list. We’re going to end up getting much of those projects paid for through state funding.

It’s nice to have someone from Jonesboro on the Arkansas Highway Commission, not to mention the hours Mayor Harold Perrin has spent lobbying the group. You know what they say about the squeaky wheel?

Highway Commissioner Alec Farmer and Perrin deserve credit for finally getting Northeast Arkansas its fair share of highway funds. We appreciate their dedication.

More great news was revealed Wednesday when economic development officials announced the expansion of a local industry here. The conveyor firm will lease a to-be-built 195,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the city’s industrial park, adding 110 new jobs while retaining about 50 others. The company will close two other plants in other cities, making Jonesboro its home.

While Jonesboro truly is a great city, it should be noted that the company got lots of incentives to expand here. Included were: the 25 acres of prime industrial land; $1 million from the Governor’s Quick Action Fund for infrastructure improvements and equipment purchases; 3.9 percent of payroll associated with the new jobs for 10 years from the state’s The Create Rebate program; and the refunding of all sales taxes on building materials, taxable machinery and equipment from the Tax Back incentive program.

If the jobs average $15 an hour, the payroll refund would total more than $1.3 million over the 10 years.

Add it all up, and that’s a tidy sum.

And, as we’re sure just about everyone has noticed, new businesses are popping up like tulips in spring here. There have been so many in recent months, it’s hard to keep up with what has opened where.

Yes, Jonesboro is on a roll. While there have been some economic setbacks in recent years due to the Great Recession, the city has been growing by leaps and bounds for years.

In addition to all the hard work being done by business and civic leaders in our community, we should not fail to mention those who came before us and paved the way for a brighter tomorrow. The leadership of yesteryear is alive and well today in Jonesboro.

For that we should all be proud and grateful and, of course, count our blessings this Easter.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 29, 2016

Give great a chance

It has been nearly 60 years since the Little Rock Crisis shook the White House, the country, and American constitutional law in general. It still casts a long shadow, especially in Little Rock, when it comes to educational issues. It’s a part of our history that should never be forgotten. For it still has much to teach us. A community, like an individual, should remember its low points so they will never be repeated.

So let us remember what was really at stake in that long-ago but still ever-present moment of American history: It was time, long past the time, for Little Rock and the rest of America to give all our children - black and white, mixed and other - an equal chance for a quality education.

Over the last six decades it’s been a long, hard and far from wholly successful struggle to do right by our kids. Despite decades of federal court orders, busing by court order, gerrymandered attendance zones, magnet schools, minority-to-majority transfers, double-funding for some schools, minority controlled school boards and superintendents, and all the other attempts to assure equal opportunity for those long discriminated against, many of our public school districts have reverted to racial segregation. Little Rock’s school district is now 66 percent black, 18 percent white, and the rest other, much like a lot of other school districts in America.

Courts across the country long ago recognized that this return to segregated schools isn’t the fault, not usually, of state or local governments. It’s the result of American families making their own decisions about how and where to best educate their children. Often it is because of dysfunctional or failing schools. As a result, parents choose to send their kids to private schools - or maybe move to the suburbs. The result: Many schools attended by poor or black students or other students in the minority don’t attract the same quality of teachers that other schools do.

There are a lot of reasons, cultural and social and historical, that those schools don’t enjoy the same degree of parental involvement and support as the more fortunate ones. The result: Far too many kids in the traditional public schools never get the same chance at an equal education that was the goal of this whole move toward justice in education almost six decades ago.

There are exceptions. One of those exceptions can be found in Little Rock with its eStem public charter schools. If you look at the racial breakdown of all 1,462 of its students, 46 percent are black, 41 percent white, and 13 percent other. Here you have a fully integrated school. If you look at its income level, more than 32 percent of the student body is on the free- or reduced-lunch program. That compares with an 18 percent poverty level for Little Rock.

If you look at where the students at eStem live, a breakdown of the eStem high school by ZIP codes reveals that 32.3 percent come from lower income neighborhoods - like those south of I-630, southwest Little Rock, and College Station. But another 27 percent of the students come from ZIP codes with higher incomes like Pleasant Valley, Pulaski Heights, Chenal and Hillcrest. So the eStem school is not only racially but economically diverse. And with 27 percent of its students coming from north of the river from North Little Rock, Jacksonville, and Maumelle, eStem high school is geographically diverse, too. All this has happened without a single court order being issued.

How then has eStem been able to achieve the diversity that has eluded so many other public schools, not just in Little Rock, but much of America? The answer would seem to be quality and equality.

The state of Arkansas now gives every public school in the state a letter grade: A, B, C, D, or F. There are only five public elementary schools in Little Rock that received an A, and eStem is one of them. (The others are Forest Park, Roberts, Terry, and Carver.) There’s only one public high school in Little Rock that received an A: eStem high school.

There are no public middle schools in Little Rock that received an A rating. Only one school received a B rating, and that, of course, was eStem. No other public middle schools received even a C rating - all the rest had either a D or an F.

When it comes to quality, there can be no doubt eStem offers its students a great education. But equality is important, too. Every student who applies to eStem has an equal chance for admission. Regardless of skin color or family income or, well, you name it - no one enjoys a preference. All admissions are done by blind lottery.

Some students do get a better education because their parents can afford to send them to private schools. And some parents can afford to buy a house in an attendance zone that lets them send their kids to a better public school. But none of these advantages give a family a better chance at getting into eStem. As a result, kids from poor or black families have the same chance at an equal—and good—education as any white kid from a wealthy family.

The experience of these eStem schools in Little Rock points the way to offer all our kids an equal chance at a great education: Establish a high-quality school. Once you do, it seems, moms and dads couldn’t care less whether the other students are black or white, rich or poor. They’ll send their children there. Even if that school is one in downtown Little Rock with an asphalt parking lot for a playground and no athletic facilities - so long as their children have a crack at a good education.

Having finally found a way, after almost 60 years, to fully integrate its schools and achieve an unparalleled diversity, why would Little Rock - or the state of Arkansas for that matter - deny that same opportunity to some 6,000 students? Including some 4,000 who are black? The question answers itself. The same way the state’s Board of Education should answer it Thursday when it’s asked by the eStem and LISA charter schools to expand and offer more opportunity to more students. Give them, and their students, an equal chance at a great education.

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