Tuesday, June 23, 2009

EDITORIAL >> PCSSD puts students last

Pulaski County Special School District’s board members narrowly voted last week to appropriate $1 million in federal stimulus funds for a new Jacksonville middle school.

Although the money is just a fraction of the cost of a new school, it is an important step toward building the first school in Jacksonville in 35 years. But it’s not clear if there will be money available to build the new middle school. What stands there now is dilapidated and polluted with asbestos. (See picture above.)

It’s a shocking site: No children should have been exposed to such hazardous materials. The school district should have torn down the school decades ago, but then the board has never shown much concern for the needs of Jacksonville-area children.

But apart from the largely symbolic gesture of allocating $1 million, or less than one-tenth needed for the project, the board missed an opportunity at its emergency meeting Friday to declare its support for quality education in Jacksonville. Instead, the board chose to reprimand city residents and The Leader for their efforts to give students better educational opportunities and better facilities.

The board’s lack of purpose was never more evident than at Friday’s meeting. Not once did the board mention the students of Jacksonville. Board members instead complained about being “pushed around” by residents and this newspaper. Board member Charlie Wood was for building a new middle school until he was against it because he didn’t want to be pushed around, he said.

This is the same board that chased off deputy superintendent Beverly Ruthven, an excellent educator and administrator, in favor of mediocrity and grandstanding.

PCSSD has treated Jacksonville like a third-rate city by ignoring the community’s school problems for too long. In a letter of reprimand sent in April to PCSSD board members, the director of the Arkansas School Boards Association questioned the board’s lack of professionalism and competence.

The letter warned the board to straighten up its act and pointed out that it was because of its reckless behavior that a bill was introduced in the last session of the legislature to allow the recall of incompetent school board members who sit on the PCSSD board. This is the same board that let financial shenanigans and outright thievery run unchecked for too long.

Many school district administrators, most notably middle school principals Mike Nellums and Kim Forrest, have criticized the board’s decision to combine the former Jacksonville boys and girls middle schools. Both principals have conveniently been moved out of Jacksonville. Like Iran’s ayatollahs, the district does not tolerate dissent.

The debate over the board’s middle school consolidation plan has been heated. It is a plan that calls for the use of trailers to alleviate overcrowding classrooms, something the board did not tell the community about until just a couple of weeks ago.
Jacksonville’s board member, Bill Vasquez, who supported combining both schools, does not respond to questions about the PCSSD’s plans for Jacksonville. He apparently feels he does not have to answer to Jacksonville residents and has all but disappeared.

The students suffer when school board members no longer want to communicate with their communities. Board members should be scrutinized because their decisions are executed with taxpayer money. More importantly, education policy affects communities on many levels.

Cabot has far surpassed Jacksonville in terms of educational quality. Airmen from Little Rock Air Force Base are flocking to Cabot because the schools are better there.

PCSSD could learn some valuable lessons from Cabot schools. School board meetings there operate professionally. Board members are well-spoken and topics often include funding new schools every couple of years. Instead of crowded classrooms, Cabot schools are focused on building state-of-the-art facilities for their students.

Petty issues that constantly plague PCSSD are never a problem at the Cabot board meetings. By comparison, the PCSSD board seems amateurish.

Jacksonville should appreciate that Cabot has helped to meet the educational needs of Air Force families living in Cabot, although children enrolled at Arnold Drive Elementary on the base attend a substandard school, despite promises by the PCSSD board that improvements will be made.

Teachers should take their civics classes to PCSSD board meetings to see for themselves what happens when democracy fails us. Civics students might do a better job running the district than those board members, who didn’t learn much when they were in school.