Friday, April 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Decisions will weigh on districts

Leader senior staff writer

Two events affecting the future of the Pulaski County Special School District and a proposed standalone Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district take place a mile away from each other and an hour apart in Little Rock Monday.

The state Board of Education convenes at 9 a.m. at the Arch Ford Education Building to consider Pulaski County’s petition to sell $81 million in second-lien bonds. Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller has asked all parties to appear in his court at

10 a.m. at the Richard S. Arnold Federal Building and be prepared to cut to the chase.

Miller is picking up threads of the substantial remnants of that case, starting with petitions by PCSSD and North Little Rock School District last fall for unitary status.

The Pulaski County Special School District informed the press Friday evening of a special board meeting at 6 p.m. Saturday “to discuss and approve the proposed bond repayment plan.”

The special meeting, about the $81 million second-lien bond proposal before the state Board of Education on Monday, will be held in the PCSSD Administrative Services Building.

In an order emailed to the parties Tuesday, Miller directed them to be prepared to address whether or not Pulaski County and North Little Rock have reached unitary status, if not to identify the impediments, to say how they differ from the now-unitary Little Rock district and how much further federal court monitoring they anticipate.

The three districts have been joined in an expensive desegregation agreement for more than 20 years, funded by the state to the current tune of about $60 million a year.

Many observers say it will be difficult to detach the Jacksonville area to form its own district until PCSSD is declared unitary.

Staff for the state Board of Education apparently expects to authorize PCSSD’s application to sell $81 million in bonds to finance construction of a new high school at Maumelle and a new Sylvan Hills middle school, with the district’s request part of the consent agenda.

PCSSD has said the money will be used for “constructing and equipping a new high school in Maumelle ($65 million), a new middle school in Sherwood ($15 million), and cost of issuance and underwriter’s discount allowance ($1.365 million).

Any remaining funds will be used for other capital projects and equipment purposes,” according to the information in the state Board of Education’s consent agenda.

That will more than double the bonded indebtedness of the district.

Daniel Gray, vice president of the Jacksonville World Class Education organization, says it doesn’t seem proper to be petitioning the state for the second-lien bond authority when an audit the PCSSD board has ordered hasn’t been completed and the district may not be able to afford to pay the bonds off—particularly if it loses its share of $60 million a year in desegregation funds.

Annual payments on the $81 million bond are expected to be about $4.5 million.

Before he resigned under fire last month, PCSSD Chief Financial Officer Larry O’Briant said the district might not have the funds to make those payments after the first few years.

Also, proponents of the standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski district say that unless they are excused from their share of the bond payments, they may not be able to afford their own school district.

The PCSSD board is slated to hear from its bond advisers at the monthly meeting Tuesday whether or not Jacksonville patrons could be excused from their share of those bond payments once detachment from the district occurs.

Bill Vasquez, the school board member representing much of Jacksonville, said the boundaries of a Jacksonville district should be set soon and the patrons made exempt from the bond payments for construction of the schools at Maumelle and Sylvan Hills.

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, who last year found the Little Rock School District to be unitary or desegregated, put the case for an independent Jacksonville district on hold while the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal of his decision.

A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit last week ruled that the standard applied by Wilson, “good faith, substantial compliance,” was sufficient.

Wilson, who has been involved with the case for seven years, then recused and the federal clerk of courts appointed Miller to hear the case.