Sarah Whites-Koditschek

Reporter

Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Little Rock-based reporter for Arkansas Public Media covering education, healthcare, state politics, and criminal justice issues. Formerly she worked as a reporter and producer for WHYY in Philadelphia..

Sarah is a graduate of Smith College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. She was a student at the Stabile Center For Investigative Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

She has won reporting awards from the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists in Arkansas as well the Public Radio News Directors Inc. She also won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Regional Award.

Contact Sarah at sarah@arkansaspublicmedia.org or 501-683-8655.

Ways to Connect

Joe Thompson is CEO of the Arkansas Center For Health Improvement
Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

For lawmakers, caregivers and patients  a solution to the state legislature’s multi-year process of bringing a new type of coordination to a traditional Medicaid population is set to be finalized this summer.

PASSE, or Provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity, will be a new oversight entity made up of nonprofit and for-profit health providers to manage the care of the state’s medically needy Medicaid population. It includes the elderly, developmentally disabled and mentally ill. The deadline for these companies to apply to be in PASSE is June 15, according to the Department of Human Services and the Arkansas Insurance Department.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas's General Assembly has given initial approval to healthcare changes not possible under President Obama. 

The modifications would move about 60,000 out of the subsidized Medicaid expansion that took place after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and under the guidance of Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe. These recipients would become customers in the regular exchange. The changes also include new Medicaid work requirements.  

A final vote is expected Wednesday morning.

Arkansas has carried out its final execution for the month of April.

Eight death row inmates were scheduled to die in less than two weeks in Arkansas in four double executions. Ultimately, four inmates were executed, including one double execution.

Death row inmate Kenneth Williams, 38, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m.  The lethal injection began at 10:52 p.m.

Williams' execution, which had been scheduled for 7 p.m., was on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed legal challenges. It ultimately denied all claims.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas executed two men in one night this week, and there is a dispute about how it went. Attorneys for the first man executed Monday, Jack Jones, say he gasped for air as he died. Media witnesses say they simply saw Jones’ lips moving. None of the execution witnesses were allowed to hear Jones’ sounds.

Andrew DeMillo, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed Jones’ execution, reported back to other journalists at the prison that Jones’ lips had moved during the lethal injection process.

Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

10:39 Update:

An ADC spokesman says Marcel Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. The procedure began at 10:16. 

A spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction declared that Jack Jones was executed Monday night by lethal injection. His execution began at 7:06 p.m. and he was declared dead at 7:20 p.m.

"He was covered in a sheet with his arms extended," said media witness, Andrew DeMillo, from the Associated Press. DeMillo noted Jones' lips continued moving for several minutes after the execution began though witnesses were not able to hear sound from the execution chamber.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A legal challenge to Monday's planned execution of Jack Jones was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

In an Arkansas Public Media story yesterday reported Jack Jones’ attorney Jeff Rosenzweig objected to the jury in Jones' sentencing. Specifically, they filled out paperwork to show contradictory findings about whether there were valid reasons, or mitigating factors, to avoid a death penalty sentence.

His attorney Jeff Rosenzweig argued precedent in Arkansas is to grant re-sentencing when there’s been such an error.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas’s execution secrecy law prevents the identities of drug manufacturers and sellers from being public. It also protects the identities of people carrying out executions.
 
But inmates’ attorneys say that secrecy, and a general lack of information about the state’s lethal injection protocol, obscure whether adequate safeguards are in place to use the controversial drug midazolam.

Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

Arkansas’s now six scheduled executions this month have been effectively stayed, again. This time it’s the result of a drug supplier suing to block usage of its product in the state’s lethal injections.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Alice Gray in Little Rock has granted a temporary injunction in favor of the drug supplier McKesson Corp. The company says the Department of Correction used deceptive practices to obtain its vecuronium bromide.

Testimony from both sides diverged on whether prison officials were forthright that they were ordering the drugs for use in an execution. 

The Takeaway

On Friday, a judge in Arkansas halted the scheduled executions of seven death row inmates. The executions were scheduled to begin today and be carried out over 11 days. The men had been fast-tracked because the state's supply of the controversial drug, midazolam, is set to expire at the end of the month.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A federal judge in Little Rock has stayed the executions of eight inmates scheduled this month. The ruling came down Saturday morning granting a preliminary injunction in the case.

The inmates had argued the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a risk of severe pain, and federal Judge Kristine Baker agreed, while expressing regret for the further delay caused to families of the inmates’ victims.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen put a separate stay on the use of one of the execution drugs Friday, after a manufacturer filed suit to block its use.  Two other inmates had also received separate individual stays.

Eastern District of Arkansas / United States Federal Court

The effects of the sedative midazolam, along with Arkansas's execution practices generally, were the subject of a federal hearing that began in Little Rock Monday that could halt seven planned executions of death row inmates starting next week.  

State Solicitor General Lee Rudofsky told U.S. District Judge Karen Baker that the inmates' case has no basis in law, and that their complaints under the Eighth Amendment have already been dismissed by previous U.S. Supreme Court and 8th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings.

He deflected arguments by the inmates' attorneys that an expedited schedule of double executions over ten days would minimize the inmates' access to effective counsel and increase the risk of error at the Arkansas Department of Correction.

"A risk of maladministration or accident is not cognizable under the 8th Amendment, but more importantly, their allegation is entirely speculative."

Arkansas Public Media

A federal judge has granted an injunction in the execution of Jason F. McGehee, one of the eight Arkansas inmates scheduled to be executed later this month.

Marshall denied requests for injunctions for five other condemned men whom the parole board did not recommend clemency.

 A lawyer for Arkansas death row inmates scheduled for execution later this month is arguing the state's accelerated timeline is subverting the state's clemency hearing protocol, functionally eliminating a public input period for the condemned men.

Public defender Julie Vandiver made that argument today inside federal Judge D.P. Marshall Jr.'s courtroom in Little Rock.

  Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court today stayed a lower court's ruling that the Arkansas Department of Corrections must release information about the drugs expected to be used in the executions.

Lindsay Johnson / National Pubic Radio

A bill to create educational savings accounts for Arkansas students failed in the Arkansas House today on a 46 to 39 vote Friday.

The so-called “Parental Choice Program,” SB 746, was not written to be a traditional vouchers program financed directly by the state. Instead it would have created non-profit organizations to funnel contributions from taxpayers and corporations to parents for their children’s school of choice. Donors to those organizations would get a 65 percent tax credit at an estimated $3 million annual cost to the state for three of a four-year pilot.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

A bill to cap the number of enrollees in the state’s Medicaid expansion pool at its current rate, roughly 332,000, is progressing through the Arkansas legislature despite violating federal law.

HB1465, sponsored by Rep. Josh Miller, (R-Herber Springs), passed the full House earlier this month and is scheduled to go before the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Labor committee Wednesday.

Approved by the legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2013 as the Private Option, the state's response to the Affordable Care Act of 2009 provides health coverage for low-income Arkansans. It was rebranded by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as Arkansas Works in 2015.

The federal government currently pays for 95 percent of the Medicaid expansion costs, and that is slated to drop to 90 percent in 2020.

“It’s not a boon to the people of Arkansas,” said Miller.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

They sit in rows, 150 closely shaven men in yellow uniforms and white identification badges, before opposing walls, in a cinder-block walled gymnasium.  

A selected group of four sit in plastic chairs forming a circle before their co-residents. Two stand up and shake hands, and the others say, “Squash it!” and clap.

These residents at Little Rock’s all-male Community Corrections Center have a daily ritual, a conflict resolution practice, meant to teach them interpersonal skills before they return to the real world.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is endorsing a proposal to end the dual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day each year.

He took to the lectern Wednesday to say that, as Americans celebrate the slain Civil Rights icon, residents of the state are presented with a choice.

“That choice that is there, it divides us as Arkansans and as a nation,” Hutchinson said.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Schools in Arkansas get $6,600 for every student. So when kids leave a public school, the money leaves too. The state chips in temporarily to cover the financial loss, but a pair of lawmakers want to end that.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Public school districts in Arkansas regularly buy and sell property, pending approval of local education boards, of course. But today, the Arkansas Senate approved a bill that would take some of that control away.

Senate Bill 308 would allow charter schools the right to purchase or lease unused public school buildings, a seemingly small concession that nonetheless raises big questions about local versus state control of schools and inspired a heated back and forth between senators this week.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said Tuesday that some public school districts let buildings sit empty, a misfortune he equated to murdering a building.

“We have had schools literally rot to the ground rather than let someone use them for educational purposes. That should never happen.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) had a lot of questions for Clark. She told a Senate Education Committee Tuesday that the bill is heavy handed, and she said it takes local control from public districts.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Under a bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee Tuesday on a voice vote, all private schools would be given public funds to take special needs kids if parents so choose, even if they haven’t achieved what’s called “accreditation.”

The Arkansas Department of Education says it can take four years to get that status. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D- Little Rock) says accreditation is evidence that the schools are doing a good job.

“I don’t think you do it by allowing kids to be put some place for four years that’s not accredited and may never be accredited.”

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Teachers in Arkansas’s lowest paying districts could see a small pay bump in their salaries soon.

A bill to increase minimum teacher salary in Arkansas is headed to the Senate Education Committee. It would bring the lowest paid Arkansas teachers up $400 dollars from the current $31,000 minimum.

Yang family

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday to send a case against the city of Little Rock's 911 and Metro EMS services to trial court.

The decision was based on the city's failure to adequately prove and document its insurance policy to a lower court, thereby voiding its claim to sovereign immunity, which would protect it from civil suits.

Tim McKuin

The Arkansas Supreme Court heard a case Thursday that may foreshadow legal battles over LGBTQ protections between state and local governments nationwide.

A 2015 state law banned anti-discrimination ordinances on any basis not already included in Arkansas law. Now lawyers for the state are suing the City of Fayetteville to invalidate its municipal ordinance protecting LGBTQ citizens.

Oral arguments on both sides pivoted on what constitutes an existing protected class in the state constitution.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Update:

A bill that would defund Arkansas universities, were they to shelter undocumented immigrant students from federal law enforcement in the course of a criminal investigation, failed on a voice vote before the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

  

Renee Green stays home with her 7-year-old disabled son, Adam, who has seizures throughout the day and cannot communicate or eat. She recently quit her job in human resources to care for Adam full time using coverage obtained through the Affordable Care Act.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek/Arkansas Public Media

In Washington the Republican-controlled Congress is speeding toward a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. While GOP leadership at the Arkansas state Capitol has said lawmakers should wait and see what happens, some conservative members of the legislature want action now.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas has the fastest growing inmate population of any state nationwide, and it's forced the formation of a task force to propose reforms. Now that task force is asking for the policymaking powers of the General Assembly to achieve its aims.

Arkansas should move low-level offenders into community programs where data shows they are half as likely to re-offend, according to a consultant's report.

Board of Corrections chairman Benny Magness says the state has no choice.

“We have to do something, because we’re not going to be able to continue to build ourselves out of this. We have to continue to look at things. And we’ve been struggling with this for ten years, to find other ways to slow this population down.”

Michael Hibblen / KUAR

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he’s secured federal approval to keep the state’s public/private healthcare partnership, renamed “Arkansas Works," but a debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act continues at the federal level, and Arkansas’s budget remains deeply dependent on federal money from “Obamacare.”

In 2014 Hutchinson was elected on a promise to dismantle the state’s Obamacare model. This week he traveled to Washington for federal approval to keep and tweak it.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Davida Walls never thought she would be teaching high school biology, let alone in the first few months after graduating from college at 22.

“Teaching was not my initial goal. It was kind of an opportunity that just, you know, became available so I took it.”

She is trying to decide whether to become a doctor or a nurse, and plans to apply for a program to train for one or the other this year.

Family of Jeremiah Adams

At 8 years old, Jeremiah Adams is starting to read for the first time. He was delayed several years in public school because of his slow reading, but his family says this new private school is changing him. He notices his surroundings in new ways, approaches learning differently, even insists on going to school.

“Before where he wouldn’t even pick up a book, now he wants to read," says grandmother Petra Delarosa. "Now we’re driving to school, he’ll see a word like on a billboard or something he’ll say, ‘Nana, how do you say this?’ ‘Nana did I say that right?' 'What does that mean, Nana?' Before he wouldn’t do that at all.”

This fall, Adams is one of 100 special education students around the state who moved from public schools to private ones under Arkansas’s first voucher program, the Succeeds Scholarship.

The program was approved during the 2015 legislative session with an initial $800,000 in public funding to be managed by the Reform Alliance, a Walton Family Foundation project.

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