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LR teachers will get bonus, but Key warns of need for salary plan change

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 12:47 PM PST

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key signed off today on a $1,000 one-time bonus for Little Rock School District teachers. But he provided the news in the letter that indicates some coming pressure on pay levels for veteran teachers.

Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association, commented  on Twitter:

Thank You, @ArkansasEd Commissioner @JohnnyKey_AR , for signing off on the #LRSDEmployee Bonus. With a stroke of a pen, you made more than 3,500 people feel valued today

Little Rock teachers, represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the AEA. have been without a pay raise during the four years (and running) of state takeover of the school district. They've also given back work days and district support of health insurance coverage.

The LREA, working with Superintendent Mike Poore, had worked out the $1,000 bonus, which Poore indicated the budget could sustain, and hoped to get paid before spring break. But Key, who functions as the "school board" in the state takeover, tabled it for further review. Teachers have been meeting on what to do if he refused the bonus, including informational picketing next week.

The bonus covers some 3,000 teachers and support workers. They'll get the bonus March 9, 10 days in advance of spring break.

Key had said he wanted updated information on the district's budget for this year and next year.

Key notified Poore of his decision in a letter that said there was "no question teachers deserve credit and compensation for their dedicated service to our students." But he noted district finances were tough because of loss of $40 million in state desegregation aid and then he added an ominous note:

In the long term, however, provfiding bonuses is not the best way to remain compettiive in recruiting and retaining effective talent. I strongly encourage LRSD and LREA leaders to take a hard look at the structure of the district's pay plan. As you and I have discussed, while Little Rock is among the top districts in the state for average teacher salary (ranked 4th in the 2016 BLR salary report), it is way behind other districts in starting pay (ranked 60th in the 2016 BLR salary report). In addition, during the first three years of teaching in LRSD, a new teacher receives a step increase that is only half of the increase built in after year three. Low starting pay, coupled with low step increases for newer teachers, puts the district at a competitive disadvantage.

We at ADE are eager to work with the district to improve the structure of the pay plan for the long-term benefit of the district. Please keep me apprised of the discussions regarding this topic, and let me know what support we can provide.
Poore works at the please of Key, so I'd guess work on this "improvement" will start soon.

Starting pay has long been a valid issue in the district and the higher pay of long-time employees, popular with them, has not been popular with critics.

But it seems a little disingenuous to complain about the disparity when nobody has had a pay raise in years.

Also: Enrollment in the district is declining and seems likely to take further hits from state authorization of 1,700 more charter school seats within the boundaries of the school district. Key, a former senator, is a long-time advocate of charter schools, home school and on-line charter schools, along with unlimited attendance choice among school districts. He's been an ally in the legislature and out of the Walton Family Foundation school agenda, which included one failed legislative effort that could have privatized the entire school district for operation by private charter school operators.

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, thanked Poore for his work and Key for recognizing employees deserved a bonus. "We are excited he signed off on it. Employees will be happy."But she indicated some concern about Key's warning. She said teachers had discussed during negotiations a need to raise starting pay.  "We are willing to look at it." But she said that can't be done while making no change in the top pay of $64,000. "You have to move it across the board," she said.She noted that there'd been no general pay raise in four years and teachers have given up from two to five days of pay, depending on the type of contract. They're also paying more for health insurance. For teachers who've worked 20 years, they are making less today than they were four years ago.

Poore issued this release:

"We are excited to honor all of our employees with a $1,000 bonus, which will be received before spring break," said Superintendent Poore. "We appreciate the thorough review of the proposed bonus by Commissioner Key and thank LRSD Chief Financial Officer Kelsey Bailey, along with negotiating teams from the District and the Little Rock Education Association for their collaborative efforts."

'While we know that LRSD faces a budget reduction next year, a bonus like this does not occur without the District having a strong financial foundation," he added. "We believe this clearly shows we are committed to fiscal responsibility, being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, and honoring our employees. They have been steadfast in their work, helping us through tough budget decisions while leading us with positive strides in student achievement."

LRSD values its employees and appreciates their dedication to the students it serves.

Friday, thank goodness

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 11:46 AM PST

The week's done. Open line. It could have been worse. You could work for Donald Trump. Not that being governed by him is so hot.

Pine Bluff native coach shuns Colorado recruit, loses job

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 10:58 AM PST

One note over the line for Texas Wesleyan baseball coach Mike Jeffcoat, a Pine Bluff native. From Fox 16:

Jeffcoat, a coach there for 15 years, was fired over an email he sent to a recruit:

NBCDFW reports that the email sent from Jeffcoat's university email account stated:

"Thanks for the interest in our program. Unfortunately, we are not recruiting players from the state of Colorado. In the past, players have had trouble passing our drug test. We have made a decision to not take a chance on Student-athletes from your state. You can thank your liberal politicians. Best of Luck wherever you decide to play."
The college president said the school condoned no discrimination of any sort. Best of luck, Mike, where you decide to play next. Arkansas might be a possibility, in that we have legalized certain forms of discrimination here.

ADC: Inmate, 44, dies from apparent suicide

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 08:48 AM PST

At 3:13 p.m. yesterday, correctional officers found Danny Ollis "hanging in a locked single-man cell where he was alone," according to an Arkansas Department of Correction press release.

He was not pronounced dead until 3:50 p.m. after receiving onsite medical treatment.

Ollis, 44, was at the East Arkansas Unit (commonly called "Brickeys") on a sentence of "Theft of Property" and "Residential Burglary" as a habitual offender — he'd first been sentenced in 1992 for similar crimes. He would've been up for parole in 2028.

The ADC said it was an apparent suicide — similar to an inmate death from this January, at the Varner Unit, when Gregg Smith was found hanging from a homemade noose in the single-man cell.

Arkansas State Police and ADC will conduct separate investigations into his death.

Prediction: Split decison on change in Arkansas Medicaid rules

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 08:44 AM PST

A Politico tipsheet says the expected visit of a Trump administration Medicaid official in Arkansas Monday will deliver a split decision for changes Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed in the Medicaid expansion program financed by Obamacare and offered through private insurers under Arkansas's hybrid plan.

Hutchinson wants to 1) institute a work requirement for recipients of Medicaid coverage and 2) provide coverage only for those making 100 percent of the federal poverty level or less, not 138 percent. The latter proposal would throw 60,000 of the roughly 300,000 people covered off their health insurance. Hutchinson says they can turn to the federally subsidized market place, but most experts believe few will because of cost.

Here's what Politico says:

ICYMI: APPROVAL OF ARKANSAS MEDICAID WAIVER IS IMMINENT — The Trump administration is poised to green-light a Medicaid waiver for Arkansas on Monday that would make it the third state to require some enrollees to work, multiple individuals with knowledge of the plan tell POLITICO's Rachana Pradhan.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson discussed the waiver with HHS Secretary Alex Azar and other top federal health officials in Washington over the weekend. Hutchinson, a Republican who inherited Medicaid expansion from his Democratic predecessor, has steadily sought conservative changes to a program that remains controversial in the state.

— One big question: how HHS handles so-called "partial expansions" of Medicaid. Arkansas also wants to cap eligibility for Obamacare Medicaid expansion at the federal poverty line, a precedent that would let states tap billions in federal funds to cover low-income adults without fully embracing the law. Several sources are skeptical that HHS would approve such a move.
One lawsuit is already underway in Kentucky over  a similar work requirement.

Why would the Trump administration want to resist an Arkansas change sure to reduce Medicaid expenses by reducing the number covered?  Well,  the change could be challenged in court, too. But a bigger risk for the Trump administration, trying to destroy Obamacare, is that it would encourage 20 states that have not joined the program to pitch in for fully funded federal coverage. Savings in Arkansas might encourage new costs elsewhere.

Asa can say he tried. Jan Morgan and the far right of the Republican Party will say any coverage is too much. The current budget session is still hanging on the Department of Human Services budget, with its billions in Medicaid expenses. Hutchinson needs 27 votes in a Senate that currently has only 32 filled seats, meaning six votes can stop the bill. Can a mixed announcement Monday put the bill over the top?

We don't yet have confirmation that Seema Verma, the federal Medicaid and Medicare administrator who once worked as a private consultant in Arkansas on related issues, will be here Monday. Seeking it from the Department of Human Services.

Time for a change in Little Rock city government?

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 08:21 AM PST

State Rep. John Walker, the civil rights lawyer, and I have often discussed the need for a more democratic Little Rock city government — specifically a mayor-council government with all city directors elected from wards.

We now have a hybrid government. The full-time, directly elected mayor has some powers — appointment and veto — and a city manager whose significant administrative powers include hiring top department heads. I don't think I exaggerate in saying a lot of people see flaws in the system. In the end, the mayor's power begins and ends with his ability to round up six votes on the City Board.

We elect seven city directors by ward and three at-large. The at-large seats are more expensive to seek and, thus, the business community generally controls those elections.  The winners tend to be white. Only 3 of 11 decisions makers are people of color in a city where the majority of the population is now people of color.

Candidates for mayor this year aren't saying much about it, but others are saying it's time to change Little Rock government. North Little Rock is a good role model. Mayors there have been aggressive in delivering various agendas. Don't like them, vote them out.

It happens that this is a good year to try in Little Rock. An ordinance to change the form of Little Rock government can be put on the ballot by initiative. It would require signatures from 15 percent of the voters in the 2014 mayoral election, a relatively small count of 52,045 because Mayor Mark Stodola was unopposed. That means 7,806 signatures could put the ordinance on the ballot.  The petitions must be filed between 60 and 90 days before the November election.

Any interest out there? I've just heard some interest from new corners of the political world, including at least one with the potential to provide some financial clout.

Consider this a run up the flagpole. I can figure who would NOT salute, including many members of the perpetually re-elected, calcified City Board, average age 67 going on 103.

PS — This need not be a referendum on any personality. Maybe Mark Stodola would emerge as a truly strong mayor. Maybe a smart mayor would want to keep the competent and politically astute City Manager Bruce Moore around as a chief of staff. (He could run for mayor.) Maybe the old folks among them — Gene Fortson, 82; Erma Hendrix, 87, Joan Adcock, 78 — would run again and be rewarded by ward voters (Fortson and Adcock both run at-large) for their long experience and constituent service. My own interest is systemic, not personal.

PPS — Good time to consider a change in campaign finance law, too. Some city directors would be sorely short of cash if denied money from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce PAC or real estate businesses. If you wonder why some directors vote for a $300,000 taxpayer subsidy to the chamber, take a look at their campaign finance reports for dough from the chamber PAC and its leaders.

UPDATE: A wholly different source informs me about work by a small group already underway on a potential government change ordinance. Problem: Under existing law, ward directors would have to live in the ward and currently be elected city wide. A vote of the new council would be necessary to change that, so voters would have to trust that proper outcome. Trust the city board? That's why a change is necessary in the first place. Also there's some question about what ward boundaries would be. If the immediate result reverted to ward alignments in the 1950s, it would obviously be unacceptable.

State tax take continues to run ahead of last year

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 07:46 AM PST

The monthly state revenue report through February says the state net take was 4.6 percent above the first eight months of the budget year compared with last year, with a surplus so far of $79.6 million more than forecast.

Income tax and sales tax collections are both running ahead of last year. Income tax was particularly strong in the month of February, thanks to increased withholdings from paychecks.

Here's the full report.

Huckabee reaps bitter harvest for anti-gay stance; forced to quit Country Music Association board

Posted: 02 Mar 2018 05:13 AM PST

Mike Huckabee resigned after a day as a member of the Country Music Association Foundation Board because of a heated protest on account of his anti-LGBT pronouncements.

Pushback was immediate after Huckabee, who now films a Christian cable network show in Nashville, was added to the board with praise for his past encouragement of teaching music in schools.

Huckabee's critics included Jason Owen, who manages Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves and Faith Hill. Owen, who is gay, married and a father, said  "Huckabee speaks of the sort of things that would suggest my family is morally beneath his, and uses language that has a profoundly negative impact upon young people all across this country. Not to mention how harmful and damaging his deep involvement with the NRA is." He said is companies would "no longer support the CMA Foundation".

Huckabee has compared homosexuality with bestiality and regularly denounced same-sex marriage.

Huckabee didn't take his disinvitation with good grace.

On Twitter, he described the protesters as "bullies", while in a longer written statement he complained of "irrational vitriol" and "intolerant and vicious statements", adding: "I hope that the music and entertainment industry will become more tolerant and inclusive and recognise that a true love for kids having access to the arts is more important than a dislike for someone or a group of people because of who they are or what they believe."
His letter even seemed to indicate his rejection could be the beginning of the end times.
"Until recently, the arts was the one place America could set aside political, geographical, racial, religious, and economic barriers and come together," he wrote. "If the arts community becomes part of the polarization instead of bridging communities and people over the power of civil norms as reflected in the arts, then we as a civilization may not be long for this earth."
Janet Huckabee chimed in with a head-scratching Tweet. Some think it is throwing children under a bus to endorse legal discrimination against them on account of their sexual orientation.
Huckabee was widely panned

From the Tennesean:

Sugarland's Kristian Bush visited Dodson Elementary School in Hermitage last week with the CMA Foundation. His manager, Whitney Pastorek, who is a CMA member, penned an email to CMA executives questioning how many children in the school's diverse population Huckabee would choose to welcome.

"What a terrible disappointment to see (the CMA Foundation's) mission clouded by the decision to align with someone who so frequently engages in the language of racism, sexism, and bigotry," Pastorek wrote. "While Gov. Huckabee's tenure in Arkansas may have resulted in valuable education reform over a decade ago, I find his choice to spend the past ten years profiting off messages of exclusion and hatred (not to mention the gun lobby) to be disqualifying."
From Variety:

Steve Schnur, a former CMA board member, said the town's phones were lit up all night and into this morning after Wednesday's announcement. "I got calls in shock from multiple CMA members, asking if I knew about it, some threatening to leave," says Schnur, who is the worldwide executive of music for EA, the blockbuster video game producer that has moved most of its efforts to Nashville, and who sits on the Recording Academy's Nashville board. "I've had numerous conversations since the second I woke up with chairmen of labels and major managers, all collectively agreeing that this move, which fortunately now has been resolved, really would have put Nashville back 20 years. I hear it wasn't properly vetted. Would the next move to have been to put somebody from the NRA on? We don't need to live under those clichés anymore, and I'm very happy that there are people like Jason, (manager) Clarence Spalding, (UMG Nashville chief) Mike Dungan, and others that won't stand for this stuff. This isn't about Republican/Democrat. We have to set an example to the people around the world who put Nashville on a pedestal, and the example can't be a lack of tolerance."

Another music industry VIP with close ties to the CMA, who did not want to be identified, explained that in many ways, Huckabee's appointment made sense, since he has a history of reaching across the aisle to further arts education in schools. "We are trying to support these programs in Tennessee, and he is a man who has been in the trenches and understands what it takes to get people of different backgrounds to get together and achieve a cause. My hope was that his experience would prove fruitful as we try to improve music in the schools."

But, added this same source, "I couldn't help but see him standing with his arms locked in the air with that Kim Davis woman in Kentucky [the clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses in 2015]. That is not a favorable memory in my mind."

Among those pleased by Huckabee's swift exit is Shane McAnally, the producer of Midland's and Old Dominion's recent breakthroughs and co-writer of hits like Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Back Road." In a statement to Variety, McAnally said, "I am glad to hear that Mike Huckabee resigned from the CMA Foundation Board and I hope that this will prevent any further distractions from the work that the CMA Foundation does in our community. As a member of the CMA Board, I was disheartened to learn that Huckabee was appointed to the position because his beliefs have not been representative of our country music community as a whole, which is made up of dynamic and forward-thinking creatives. The CMA is an organization that acts as an ambassador for our industry, so it is incredibly important that we are diligent in spreading a message that embraces diversity and love. I hope that the CMA will continue to be governed by progressive and empathetic individuals in the future."
Kim Davis sees it differently, no doubt. She probably agrees with Huckabee that "hate wins." If I know the Huckster, he'll chum up some speaking fees from the controversy.

The winners: The applications for medical marijuana cultivation permits

Posted: 01 Mar 2018 04:23 PM PST

The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission has just released copies of the applications of the top five scorers in the round of competition for five cultivation facilities.

There are actually six applications by five different groups. One group submitted applications for operations in both Jefferson and Jackson Counties. It must choose one to go forward and has not done so yet.

Here are the links for each of the top six applications. Major portions of the applications are redacted, more than I had expected. In addition to personal information on phone numbers and the like many operational and financial details are blanked out.

UPDATE: All the links now work.

* Natural State Medicinals Cultivation. This is for a facility in Jefferson County. The group includes people associated with the LaFrance family and their former business, USA Drugs. Familiar names include Dr. Alonzo Williams, Fox 16 anchor Donna Terrell, Dr. Kelli Schlesinger, chairman of the state Medical Board, and Bud Cummins, the former U.S. attorney and Trump campaign manager for Arkansas. Joseph Courtright, former CEO of USA Drugs, and Susan Williams are the biggest owners with 15 percent each.

* Bold Team LLC. For a facility at Cotton Plant in Woodruff County. This group includes among top owners an accountant, Danny W. Brown, with varied interests including Willy D's piano bar in the River Market, and Mark Drennan, who filed the application.

* Natural State Wellness Enterprises. This link is for its Jackson County proposal. Henry Wilkins V, former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and John Allison are among owners, with William Young the biggest at 34 percent.

* Natural State Wellness Enterprises. This link is for its Jefferson County application. Ownership is the same.

* Osage Creek Cultivation. This is for a facility in Carroll County. It was filed by Berryville businessman Jay Trulove. He and his wife Mary are the only identified owners of stock, but several others, including family members, are listed on an advisory board.

* Delta Medical Cannabis Company. This group plans a facility in Newport. It includes a group of mostly Northeast Arkansas investors, including Doug Falls, who filed the application, and Don Parker, a Jonesboro lawyer who talked about the group Tuesday. The top owners are three LLCs. All of the owners of each are identified. The application also indicates the group is interested in applying for dispensary applications as well.

PAW PAC celebrates Democratic women candidates

Posted: 01 Mar 2018 02:56 PM PST

The Progressive Arkansas Women PAC celebrated Democratic candidates on the steps of the state Capitol today at the close of filing for the 2018 elections, with Secretary of State candidate Susan Inman asking, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

Twenty-six Democratic women are seeking office at the statewide level, and only four of those are incumbents. The women are trying to unseat such unsavory Republican incumbents as I'm-more-Christian-than-you Sen. Jason Rapert (Maureen Skinner of Conway), keep-'em-barefoot, pregnant-and-heterosexual Sen. Kim Hammer (Melissa Fults of Hensley), guns-everywhere-and-at-all-times Rep. Charlie Collins (Denise Garner of Fayetteville), Mr.-"judicial-overreach" Rep. Mark Lowery (Monica Ball of Maumelle), tax-the-poor-not-the-rich Rep. Jim Sorvillo (Jess Mallett of Little Rock) and ... well, one could go on, but we don't have all day.

One candidate, Teresa Gallegos, filed last year as the Democratic candidate to face the winner of a March 13 Republican special primary for Senate District 16. That election is May 22.

PAW PAC was created two years ago to recruit and train women candidates with progressive stands on health care, education, economics and women's rights. In 2016, it backed 12 candidates. It's endorsing 22 this year. The total number of women candidates was a record this year.

P.S.: Almost forgot: The PAW PAC, in noting women's entry into down-ballot races, introduced the candidate for coroner in Sebastian County. She's got a great name for the job: Leah Livengood. 

Justice Department seeks to stop drug production at Cantrell Drug over sanitary conditions

Posted: 01 Mar 2018 02:47 PM PST

The federal Justice Department announced today that it had filed a civil action to stop drug production by Cantrell Drug Company because of unsanitary operations.

A release from the U.S. attorney's office said the U.S. had asked for an inunction against Cantrell Drug Company and its CEO, James McCarley Jr.

A complaint filed in federal district court said the company — a compounding pharmacy that produces drugs for others — had distributed adulterated drugs, meaning they were prepared, packed or held under unsanitary conditions and may have been contaminated or rendered "injurious" to health.

The news release said Cantrell had done voluntary recalls of drugs in 2016 and 2017 for lack of sterility assurance. The Justice Department said the Food and Drug Administration had found evidence of unsanitary conditions and deviations from good practice in a 2017 inspection.

Arkansas Business' Mark Friedman  reported problems at the company after it filed for bankruptcy reorganization last year. The company employed about 85 people at that time.

Here's the full complaint.

The FDA today issued a warning to health professionals and consumers about use of drugs made by Cantrell Drug.

McCarley has issued a news release saying the company was attempting through a motion in bankruptcy court to stop the FDA from shutting the company down.  Said the release:

If Cantrell Drug shuts down, thousands of patients may not receive the pain medication they need and hospital pharmacists will be scrambling. All of this is in direct conflict with Congress' intent to provide a solution for drug shortages through 503B Outsourcing Facilities such as Cantrell.
The Justice Department news release said:

"The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is designed to protect patients from potentially unsafe drugs," said U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland for the Eastern District of Arkansas. "This action demonstrates our commitment to enforcing these laws. We remain steadfast in our dedication to keeping the citizens of our communities safe by whatever means available under federal law."

If entered by the Court, the Proposed Order of Preliminary Injunction sought in conjunction with the filed complaint would require defendants temporarily to cease their current operations and to recall and destroy all non-expired drugs manufactured, held, and/or distributed by them. The Proposed Order also provides defendants with a pathway to resume manufacturing and distribution by establishing specific actions defendants must take to remedy their operations.