updated 10/12/2006 9:21:06 PM ET 2006-10-13T01:21:06

For the first time since federal troops escorted nine black students into Central High School 49 years ago, the Little Rock school board has a black majority.

Dianne Curry won a runoff election Tuesday, meaning four of the Little Rock School District’s seven board members are black. The 26,000-student district has been predominantly black for years, but until now, it had never had a black-majority school board.

“Right now, they see a board that looks like them and it’s easier for us to connect with them,” said school board member Charles Armstrong, elected last month. “You’ve got a board that can reach out to the community.”

Until 1957, Little Rock had operated separate schools for blacks and whites. Despite a U.S. Supreme Court order, Gov. Orval Faubus sought to prevent nine black students from entering Central. President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to enforce the court’s order.

Federal courts have continued to monitor the desegregation effort since 1965.

“Maybe this is a sign of change coming,” said Armstrong, who is black. Previous boards had difficulties relating to the community because it didn’t match the racial makeup of the city’s schools, Armstrong said.

Sixty-eight percent of the district’s students are black, 24 percent are white; Hispanics and Asians make up most of the remaining 8 percent. The majority of Little Rock itself is white; there are many predominantly white private schools in the region.

‘Some voices that will be heard’
Curry defeated Tom Brock, who had been appointed to fill an unexpired term in February. She said she didn’t believe race played a factor in the race, but added that having a majority-black board sends a message to the community.

Curry said people in the district “feel like they have some voices that will be heard, that they can be heard through the representation.”

The biggest question is whether the district will change the way it deals with continuing desegregation questions. It has sought to free itself from federal monitoring, but a judge ruled two years ago that the district was not adequately appraising how well its academic programs helped black students. He maintained partial control over the district.

Superintendent Roy Brooks is black, as is Robert Daugherty, the board’s president.

No more ‘business as usual,’ board leader says
Daugherty said a majority-black board may help open dialogue with a group of community members that has intervened in the federal case to promote the causes of black students.

“In the near future, you’ll see the district working more closely with the other stakeholders here in the city,” Daugherty said. “I think people are looking for a change. They’re tired of things as usual, business as usual. They want people who are more in tune with the community, and I think that’s what you see now.”

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service and a former school board president, said having a majority-black school board “is probably long overdue,” but that students districtwide would come first.

“I think the board members are going to vote much more on the content of their character than the color of their skin,” said Rutherford, who is white. “Most people when they get on the school board tend to view issues not by color but by what’s best for the students.”

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