Monday, January 21, 2008

TOP STORY >> Officials in PCSSD offer hope on schools

Leader senior staff writer

New buildings to replace the Jacksonville middle schools and both Arnold Drive Elementary School and nearby Tolleson Elementary School are on the draft 2008 Pulaski County Special School District facilities master plan, provided that residents in the district approve the bond issue necessary to pay for them, according to the proposal presented by administrators at a public hearing at the district office Thursday evening.

The meeting, attended by four members of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization, two Little Rock Air Force Base representatives, another Jacksonville resident and a man curious about attendance zones for the new Chenal Elementary School, a handful of administrators, Superintendent James Sharpe and board members Pam Roberts, Danny Gililland, Mildred Tatum and Bill Vasquez, and by Judge Andree Roaf, head of the office of desegregation monitoring, lasted only about 40 minutes and seemed to satisfy those who attended.

Activists among Jacksonville-area residents, many of whom want a stand-alone school district carved out of PCSSD, have recently turned their efforts toward improving local schools and facilities regardless of the eventual determination regarding their own district, and a new Jacksonville Middle School has been their rallying point.

Most district schools are old, in decay and disarray, but those in the Jacksonville area have been singled out as particularly inadequate.

The district is bound by state law to submit a new10-year master plan by Feb. 1, and to be eligible for any state funds at all, a project or building must be included on the list.

Based on real estate tax receipts, PCSSD is considered a fairly wealthy district, meaning that the state will pay only about 10 to 13 percent of the cost of approved construction and remodeling.

Currently the cost of the new middle school would be $25 million, spread over four fiscal years from 2009-2010 through 2012-2013, according to the proposal presented by Jerry Holder, director of plant services.

This is the only new school added to the master plan, although new schools already were under construction or on the plan—and its dependent upon the passage of a new millage to pay off a bond of $50 million or more.

The district previously committed to one new school to replace both Arnold Drive Elementary School on the base and nearby Tolleson Elementary School.

Base brass and members of the Arkansas Congressional Delegation, particularly Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Cong. Vic Snyder, have supported the new school, and Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz has promised land outside the gate, but on the base, for construction.

That school is expected to cost $15 million to be funded over the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 fiscal years, according to the proposed plan.

Currently Jacksonville Middle School is conducted at both a boys campus and a girls campus. The proposal, if approved by the board and submitted by the Feb. 1 deadline, still requires approval of a new tax, as does construction of the new elementary school at the base. In addition, the board would have to determine whether to keep the students in gender specific groups in the new school and if not, to reconcile the different schedules. The girls school is currently on the modified A-B block schedule, with 90 minutes classes, the boys school is on the traditional seven-period schedule.

A new $13 million Chenal Elementary School is due to open for the 2008-2009 school year.

The new $25 million Sylvan Hills Middle School is still in the engineering stages and could open by 2011-2012, the same schedule as the new $40 million Oak Grove High School.

Also on the master plan is $300,000 for a North Pulaski High School field house, to be paid this fiscal year, with local funds only. The state doesn’t usually help with field house construction.

Other local projects on the proposed facilities master plan include: Harris Elementary School, electrical service replacement, $51,000 in 2010-2011; Pinewood Elementary School, heating and air conditioning replacement, $493,000 in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015; and Homer Adkins pre-kindergarten asbestos removal, $173,000 in 2011-2012.

Recently completed local projects from the master plan include: Homer Adkins, reproofing, $120,000; Jacksonville High School reproofing, $150,000; Jacksonville Girls Middle School reproofing, $100,000 and Scott Elementary School reproofing, $140,000.
Regardless of whether or not it gets its own school district, “Jacksonville seems to be moving in the right direction, with new schools,” said Roaf.
Gray, speaking as vice president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization, said he was generally pleased with the proposed master plan, but that he would rather see voters consider a smaller millage increase than the maximum figure mentioned of $200,000 million, saying the chances for passage would be greater if smaller.

A 1.9-mil increase would fund the $50,000 needed to get Jacksonville’s work done, he said.

Chief Financial Officer Larry O’Briant noted that if the district is released from the court-approved desegregation approval, that it would lose about $15 to $18 million in current state aid.

Col. Scott Lockhard said he was well pleased with the meeting.

“It means great things for the community, with the emphasis on education, because that’s our future. It doesn’t happen overnight.