Tuesday, September 09, 2008

TOP STORY > >Candidates in showdown

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville may get its own school district, but it won’t get the Adkins Pre-K center, said Gwen Williams, the Zone 7 Pulaski County Special School District Board incumbent during a Monday evening debate with her challenger, Alderman Reedie Ray.

“That’s my baby,” she said, explaining that when the district tried to close it she fought for it to stay open and help develop it as a pre-K center in order to save the school, adding, “I don’t care about Jacksonville getting their schools.”

The school located off Hwy. 161. is within the Jacksonville city limits and is included in Jacksonville’s proposed breakaway district.

What was billed as a debate between Zone 7 candidates, Wil-liams and Ray, at the McAlmont Church of Christ, was not. It was a nearly one-sided support meeting for Williams.

Of the nearly 50 people attending, the majority was district teachers and staff who support Williams, members of her reelection committee were also in the audience as well as a few parents and four city leaders from Jacksonville.

Alderman Bob Stroud said it spoke volumes about Ray’s character that he stayed in the hostile environment and answered all the questions. “I would have walked out,” Stroud said.

Ray got on the wrong side right away saying, and receiving jeers, “The wrong people are here. It’s all staff, we need parents here. They are the ones that need to show concern for the children,” he said.

Many of those district staff members remember when Ray was the school board president in 1994 and fought against the union when they went on strike. “They had nothing to negotiate at the time,” he said.

“So Mr. Ray, what you are saying is that teachers do not have the right to strike for better pay to feed their families and pay bills? Did I hear you correctly so I can inform my staff when I return to school tomorrow?” one teacher asked.

Ray tried to explain that he was in a union and had no problems with the union, but he said in 1994 there was no money in the district. “The union went on strike just to show that it could. The union does not run the district, the superintendent and school board do,” he said to jeers.

Williams tried to correct him, saying, “The school board runs the district.” The crowd applauded.

Most of the audience questions were written down in advance and were from Williams supporters geared to showcase Williams.

Whenever Williams spoke, it was to applause, sometimes thunderous, and when Ray spoke the reaction ranged from silence to jeers. At the end, Williams got a standing ovation and Ray got nothing.

Williams, who has served on the board since 1996, said her allegiance was with Zone 7. “I went to Harris Elementary. I’ve sent five children to Harris, five grand children and three great-grandchildren there. I have truly represented you, this community and the Scott community,” Williams said.

Ray, whose children and grandchildren have attended schools in the district, said his goal was to ensure that Jacksonville separated from the county district.

“The county district is just too big. It needs to become more manageable,” he said. He believes both Jacksonville and the county district would benefit from the separation. “I want to make sure the children learn,” he said.

One of Ray’s major concerns for the district, but especially Jacksonville, was the buildings and infrastructure.

“We haven’t had a new school in 30 years,” Ray said. “Our entire infrastructure has gone down since I left in 1994.”

The candidate added that the buildings are so deteriorated in Jacksonville that the air base’s welcoming committee tells incoming military not to send their children to Jacksonville schools. “That’s a shame. We have to do something,” he said. “We have to bring our infrastructure back up to improve our education level.”

Williams responded, “It’s not the buildings that educate our children, it’s the people in the buildings.”

“Besides,” she added, “Jackson-ville would have already had three new schools if it had supported the last millage increase.

Jacksonville, Maumelle and Sherwood have never supported a millage campaign. If you think Jacksonville will pass a millage for its own district, why won’t you pass it for the county?”

Ray said, “Jacksonville won’t pass a millage because it knows the money won’t go there.”

Budget cuts came up in the debate since the district has been on the state’s fiscal-distress list.

Williams said any program that directly affects instruction would be off limits for budget cuts.

Ray said the district would need to look at the overall picture. “All programs most be looked at.”

One audience member asked what would happen if Ray, who lives in Jacksonville, was elected and Jacksonville then got its own district. “We would have no representation then, right?”

Williams said that was correct. “Zone 7 could go up to a year without any representation while the zone boundaries were redrawn,” she said.

Ray said it would be no different then if he died while serving. “What would happen? You would have an election to fill the seat. It’ll be no different,” he said.

The school board election is set for Tuesday, and polls will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Voters living in Zone 7 may vote at the following locations:

First Presbyterian Church, 1208 W. Main St.

Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club, 1 Boys Club Road.

Berea Baptist Church, 104 E. Valentine Road.

Harris Elementary School, 4424 North Hwy. 161, North Little Rock.

Sherman Park Community Center, 624 N. Beech St., North Little Rock.

Meadow Park Elementary, 2300 Eureka Gardens Rd., North Little Rock.

Calvary Baptist Church, 5025 Lynch Dr., North Little Rock.

Plantation Agriculture Museum, 4815 Hwy. 161, Scott.