Friday, April 10, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lawmakers go home

The General Assembly wrapped up its session Thursday after 88 days with the lawmakers and the governor swapping lavish encomiums and everyone pounding their own backs in the ritual of self-congratulation that has followed every biennial session for a century and a half. But unless we missed it, no one called the session “historic,” which was the label that governors like Orval Faubus and Mike Huckabee applied to legislatures that went along with some of their ideas. Most often, the legislative sittings were historic only in their indifference to the manifold problems of the people, which would go unaddressed for yet another two years.

If the 87th General Assembly, as this one is called, turns out to be historic it will be because it neglected to see the storm clouds on the horizon and needlessly cut taxes to keep political promises and to curry favor with some powerful interests. We can only hope that Arkansas’ remarkable resilience to the global economic travails continues until the national economy gets back on track. If it does not, the 87th will be back to redress its oversights, and it will not be fun or nearly as congenial as this session has been.

Governor Beebe, addressing the Senate at adjournment, remarked that the lawmakers had worked in non-partisan harmony, good exemplars for the deeply riven Congress of the United States.

The Arkansas legislature indeed has been free of partisanship since the years after Reconstruction, but largely because, whatever their formal party affiliation, lawmakers shared the same hidebound notions about what constituted the public good and whose interests were paramount (usually not the people’s).

But there was some partisan division this year. A sizable part of the Republican contingent, which now is roughly a fourth of each house, championed some nutty proposals but usually could not find quite enough craven Democrats to send the bills to the governor. Had they done so, it would have been interesting. Governor Beebe has a nearly ironclad policy of not vetoing bills, which means that he does not have to disappoint the legislators who sponsored had championed them. It is one secret to his success in getting his way with the legislature, though there is nothing furtive about it. He said last week that he flatly would not veto any bills. We remember when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller — and less frequently his successor, Dale Bumpers — took pleasure in using the veto stamp. In Rockefeller’s case, the legislature routinely overrode the vetoes, which it can do in Arkansas by a simple majority in both houses.

Much has been written about Governor Beebe’s amazing success. Whatever he wants (almost) he gets. This time, he said, he was disappointed that the legislature did not pass an energy conservation bill he supported or the resolution ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been resurrected the past two sessions after its ignominious death in the Arkansas Senate in 1973. One political columnist suggested that it was time to assess Beebe’s place in history, perhaps at the very top of the roll of effective governors.

There may have been no governor in history who enjoyed — perhaps even engineered — so much political peace, in his case for going on three years now. Having spent two decades mastering the legislative arts and dynamics, he knows what can be done and how to do it without ruffling feathers. Unlike Mike Huckabee, his predecessor, he never barrels out attacking anyone who has a different notion from his.

But there is a better explanation for Beebe’s high degree of success. He just doesn’t ask for much. He has offered no bold ideas. The record of reforms and of better services pales beside that of, say, Bumpers, Sid McMath and Bill Clinton — or, for that matter, Huckabee, who signed, embraced and then claimed credit for a passel of major reforms instigated by the Democratic legislature.

Mike Beebe is content to consolidate, streamline and manage the affairs of state. Someone called him the perfect technocratic chief executive. That is not to derogate him. His predecessor mismanaged the government horribly, leaving wreckage in big programs like health and human services.

Beebe’s big successes heretofore were halving the sales tax on groceries and increasing the severance tax on natural gas. Any governor can cut taxes, and the severance tax was made doable by an initiative campaign that was likely to place a 7 percent tax on gas extractions. The industry, which had kept the tax minuscule for almost a century, was eager to help the governor pass a modest one.

This session had one notable achievement, a hefty cigarette tax that will finance a statewide trauma center and modestly improve a score of other public health programs. The legislature passed an enabling act setting up the state’s first lottery, but only the details had been left hanging after voters amended the Constitution in November prescribing a lottery and the broad outlines of how it would be done.

Beyond that, virtually nothing that anyone should long remember came out of the session, although some 2,000 new laws will go on the books. This session, like every other in recent years and like those in nearly all the states, significantly enlarged the legal code by criminalizing even more negligent, unsanitary or boorish behavior. The ones that created the biggest fuss will allow police to stop cars and arrest drivers and passengers for not wearing seat belts, youngsters for using cell phones in their cars and merchants for selling toy guns. But there were many others.

A scholar at the Cato Institute described the trend toward criminalization a few years ago: “The criminal law has become an all-purpose tool for legislators to signal that they are serious about whatever the social problem of the month is. . . The criminal law is the society’s most powerful moral sanction and it ought to be reserved for those sorts of really dangerous and blameworthy offenses that you’re willing to lock people up for.”

But what else is there for a lawmaker to do? If you do not address petty fears and concerns you might have to face the big ones, like vanishing health care, failing schools, the vast and expensive prison overpopulation, corrosive ethical laxity in public officials and . . . Well, the list goes on.

TOP STORY >> City asks residents to join storm alert

Leader staff writer

The Thursday night storm in Cabot was the first test of CodeRED, the free emergency-notification system that will alert residents of approaching storms. It worked, but only for the 1,000 or so residents who have registered. About 9,000 did not get the potentially life-saving call from the National Weather Service.

CodeRED is open to everyone inside Cabot city limits. But so far only about one-tenth of the residents have called or logged onto the city’s Web site to register.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said this week that until residents sign up for the weather alerts, the city will call all 10,000 customers in the data base at Cabot WaterWorks every time the tornado alarm sounds. But CodeRED is more effective because the calls are specific to the area where a storm is expected to hit.

To register, call city hall at 501 843-3566 or go to the city’s Web site at

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.

TOP STORY >> Mayoral hopefuls air views

Leader staff writer

Local control of the public schools was made a top priority of the six candidates vying to lead Jacksonville as they presented their platforms at a library luncheon on Friday hosted by the AARP.

Maintaining a strong relationship to Little Rock Air Force Base, the need for a revival of community spirit and pride, and new blood and fresh ideas were also common themes among the candidates in the special May 12 election.

Distinguishing the contenders were speaking style and a few favored issues. Randy “Doc” Rhodd, who spoke first by lottery, wanted to stay seated to read a prepared statement, but rose to his feet at the urging of listeners.

He offered a list of concerns he vowed to address if elected, starting with the school district: “We want and need our own district and stop handing out money to other districts.” On keeping the city’s doctors, he said, “We can’t afford to lose the doctors. We need to reach a compromise. I’m afraid the hospital will eventually leave here, too.” Rundown rental properties, a city “over-run with drug problems,” stagnant population and development, and the need to reopen Graham Road, rounded out Rhodd’s list of priorities.

Alderman Gary Fletcher, who spoke next, moved freely before his listeners as he spoke. Rather than offer a litany of priorities, he chose to talk about his years of experience in city government and his ties to the community.

His first, although unsuccessful, bid for city council was at the age of 19, and now he is in his 19th race. His more than 30 years as an alderman have been “active years.

But the committees, titles and ordinances he sponsored were not what really counts in city government,” he said. “The main purpose of what we do is for the good of the people. I am an empathetic person,” he said, “and I take on the small individual’s cause.”

Tommy Dupree, longtime Jacksonville resident, stood tableside as he talked about his years as a real estate developer and builder in business in the 1970s with his brother.

“We were the mass builders early on,” he said, before venturing into commercial development. He laid claim to bring Walmart to Jacksonville as well as other businesses. He was most impassioned about the need to form a public-safety commission to oversee ambulance services and fire and police protection.

“When you have five people watching the hen house rather than one, you’re better off. The police department needs to be watched more closely than anyone of them.” Finishing Hwy. 67/167 improvements as quickly as possible, even if it takes city money to have shovel-ready projects ready for federal funds, is critical to reduce accidents, he said.

Jody Urquhart wasn’t shy about getting up from the table and coming around to the front, putting his contenders behind him, as he spoke about his reasons for entering the race.

“I didn’t take it lightly,” he said, and was undecided until hearing about more of his friends – young couples with children – who had decided to move away from Jacksonville. “That kills me, every time I hear of a young professional family moving out of Jacksonville.”

He was blunt the lack of school spirit that hurts kids in Jacksonville schools, “because we are sick of Pulaski County (Special School District).”

Urquhart proposed working with school district leadership and using city sales tax revenue to rebuild deteriorating school facilities. “Education is the most important issue in this campaign,” he said.

Beckie Brooks stayed put behind the table as she talked about her years living and working in Jacksonville and what matters to her most – the people who live here: “the little people to our seniors.”

Citizens from every quarter need to be drawn out, their ideas heard and energy tapped, in order to “excite the community and get it growing again,” she said.

For her, schools are a top priority, because “It is difficult to sell a community if you can’t sell the schools.” Other concerns include keeping medical services, creation of a small-business directory, and a time limit on local taxes.

“I am not against paying for things, but there needs to be a sunset,” she said.” To dispel a rumor going around, Brooks said, “I am not for doing away with code enforcement!”

Kenny Elliott, last to speak, chose also to stand by his seat as he explained his interest in becoming mayor of Jacksonville, now in his 13th year as an alderman.

A lifelong Jacksonville resident, he said he wants to “give back to the community. I love Jacksonville and care about the future of Jacksonville.”

He told listeners he had the “experience, dedication and vision” to be mayor. That vision includes “a high quality of life and a new community pride.”

A list of priorities included expedited completion of the Joint Education Center, the Vandenberg Boulevard intersection, the police and fire training facility, and quality medical care, economic development, filling vacant buildings with new businesses, stronger enforcement of city housing codes, committees to oversee Sunnyside housing and volunteerism.

TOP STORY >> Settlement will burden tight budget

Leader staff writer

Sherwood officials are scrambling to find the money to pay a settlement with the city’s former ambulance provider that they had fired — a lawsuit that they think they should have won.

“I don’t think any of us wanted to do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t see any other option,” said Alderman Sheila Sulcer after the Sherwood City Council voted Wednesday afternoon to settle a lawsuit brought against the city by Arkansas Emergency Transport.

The 5-1 vote to settle will cost $350,000. The city’s insurance company, which has already paid out $125,000 in attorney’s fees to fight the suit, will pay $125,000 toward the total settlement, leaving the city with $225,000.

The unbudgeted expense is on top of the recent agreement to buy the old North Hills Golf Course for $5.5 million, the $1 million or more it will cost to turn the acreage back into an operating golf course as many on the council want to do, the $2 million to $5 million needed to bring the city’s sewer system into compliance, and the untold expense the city may face if it loses or settles a recently filed lawsuit by a developer over the North Belt.

Even though the council voted to accept the settlement, it did not approve an ordinance allocating the money as it didn’t have the six required votes.

Aldermen Charlie Harmon, Kevin Lilly, Becki Vassar, Marina Brooks and Sulcer voted for the settlement. Alderman Butch Davis was against it and Ken Rankin and Steve Fender were not at the hastily called meeting.

Mayor Virginia Hillman was also against settling.

Arkansas Emergency Transport, claimed Sherwood violated terms of the contract when it fired AET. Sherwood fired the company in the fall of 2006 because it believed AET was negligent and incompetent.

Among the city’s complaints when it fired AET and hired Metropolitan Emergency Medical Service was an incident where an AET ambulance went to the wrong school because the driver didn’t know the area and that delay turned out to be a factor in a teen’s death.

MEMS took over in October 2006 and the city signed a five- year agreement with that service in December 2006.

AET was let go just a year and a half into a five-year contract and claimed in its suit that it was owed more than $750,000, plus attorney fees.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Susan Weber Wright issued a directed verdict for the ambulance suit agreeing that the city had violated the terms of the contract. A jury was only going to get to decide on the monetary award.

“I still think if the jury heard about the problems we had with AET it would have sided with us, and the monetary amount would have been small,” the mayor said.

But five attorneys who worked for the city on this case all agreed that it was too risky and asked the council to settle.
Sulcer said there was a lot of “long and hard discussions” at the 90-minute council meeting.

Sulcer felt the decision by the judge was unfair. “I’m not an attorney, but I don’t think it was right that only the contract was looked at and not what AET was actually doing in the city. AET didn’t live up to what they said they would do,” Sulcer said.

“I hate that we had to do this,” Vassar said.

“No one disputes that fact that we had to make the change. When we made the change it was in the best interest and safety of our residents,” Vassar explained.

In voting for the settlement, Vassar said it was the lesser of two evils. “It was not palatable, not pleasing, but safer than taking it to the jury,” she said.

When the case was first filed, Vassar thought the city had a slam-dunk win because of all the incidents of poor service by the ambulance service.

She even called some of those incidents nightmarish. But when the judge decided not to look at that, Vassar felt it put the city in a corner. “I’m just heartsick about this.”

The mayor said the council will have to meet again to officially appropriate the money. She said she had not heard anything from the city attorney or court as to whether it must be a lump sum payment or can be paid over time or when any payments have to be made.

“We just weren’t pleased and felt they weren’t providing for the safety of our citizens,” said Bill Harmon, mayor at the time.
Under the new contract, MEMS promised to have at least two ambulances on call in the Sherwood area at all times. “Once that second ambulance is called out, we’ll roll a third one into the area, and then a fourth and so on, if necessary,” Jon Swanson, executive director for MEMS, told the council in December 2006.

The council has been very pleased with the efforts and response and work of MEMS since they took over.

TOP STORY >> C-130J survives cuts as budget tightened

Leader senior staff writer

The proposed 2010 Defense Department budget would end procurement of one venerable airlifter, but the future for the C-130J looks brighter than ever, according to some observers.

Little Rock Air Force Base is the pre-eminent C-130 base in the world and virtually all aircrews and maintainers are trained there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposed $534 billion budget could signal the end of the C-17 air transport plane, the F-22 stealth fighter and expensive new presidential helicopters. The budget still has to survive Congress, where those weapons and systems all have guardian senators and congressmen who want to protect manufacturing jobs in their districts and states.

“I heard nothing in Secretary Gates’ budget statement in conflict with the war fighters’ great confidence in the C-130J,” Rep.

Vic Snyder said this week. “It has proven itself both in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be part of military transport for years.” Snyder serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

Gates said the military would fill its needs for C-17 heavy-lift air transport this fiscal year, ending with 205 of the airplanes.

He resisted congressional pressure to add more C-17s to preserve jobs throughout the country. “We have enough C-17s,” he said.

If the department doesn’t buy more C-17s, then Lockheed Martin’s C-130J Hercules, which the Pentagon tried to cancel several years ago over cost issues, is the likely winner – but not a certain one, according to one account.

Alenia’s smaller joint force cargo plane, the C-27J, has been discussed as a mobility and gunship aircraft for smaller loads and takeoffs and landings at airstrips even shorter than the minimum for the C-130J.

Gates’ budget reinforces a strategy of arming for wars against insurgencies and irregular threats in places such as Afghanistan rather than for fighting conventional wars.

Tuesday, Air Force representatives received the first of 14 new C-130J Hercules that will be based permanently at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Ten C-130Js will be delivered to Ramstein this year, with four more scheduled for delivery in 2010, according to a Lockheed Martin press release. The 14 new Js will support the Ramstein-based 37th Airlift Squadron, 86th Airlift Wing that has been flying older C-130Es.

The new aircraft are the longer C-130J-30 configuration, which is now the standard for recapitalizing the USAF and many other air forces around the world.

C-130Js are engaged in high-tempo operations in multiple combat theaters and are routinely deployed in support of both peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, a spokesman said. The C-130J is a proven airlifter that has been selected by 10 nations, with 173 aircraft delivered to date.

Also affecting the C-130, in March the Air Force discovered cracks in some barrel nuts, which hold the wings to the plane, and it has relied since then on planes without the problem.

At Little Rock and throughout the Air Force, maintainers have been replacing the barrel nuts and putting the planes back in the air as quickly as possible.

Those barrel nuts secure the outer wings to the center wing box, according to Col. Greg Otey. Otey is commander of the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base.

About one-third of the 95 C-130s at Little Rock have the questionable upper wing-joint barrel nuts that held planes out of service, according to Otey.

“We’ve had no decrease in our ability to support our worldwide commitments,” said Col. Jeffery Hoffer, 19th Operations Group commander at Little Rock.

“Through strong collaboration between operations and maintenance personnel, we’ve been able to mitigate any training losses as well to maintain a high level of readiness,” Hoffer said.

“Simulators have proven effective tools in providing alternative training platforms, but nothing can replace the knowledge and proficiency provided by flying actual aircraft. We expect to be back to full strength shortly which will allow us to continue to support the war fighters,” the colonel said.

SPORTS >> Panthers experience woeful week

Special to The Leader

Tuesday evening’s 17-1 loss to Conway brought back a few bad memories for Cabot coach Jay Fitch.

“This reminds me so much of when we lost at their place last year,” said Fitch. “It was the same thing then where everything just fell apart. Just one of those days where something goes wrong early and just snowballs from there.”

Cabot didn’t score at all until the bottom of the fifth inning when pinch-hitter Joe Bryant connected for a home run to left field to lead off the inning. Conway starter B.J. Lowe had given up just three hits – all singles – before Bryant’s homer.

Cole Nicholson, Kyle Brant and C.J. Jacoby each had hits for the Panthers.

Nicholson got the start on the mound for Cabot and lasted four innings. Chad Wisely took the mound to begin a long fifth inning that saw Conway score eight runs and take a 17-0 lead. Zach White, Jeff Brown and Jacob Luckett also each pitched in the fifth inning.

“They hit it good and we didn’t. They pitched well and we didn’t. They fielded well and we didn’t,” Fitch said. “We just absolutely did not play well today.”

The loss dropped Cabot to 11-5 overall and 3-3 in conference action.

The Panthers’ shot at redemption against Catholic on Wednesday started out well, as Cabot rushed out to a 5-0 lead after two. The Rockets responded with a pitching adjustment to slow down the Cabot bats, and took advantage of a young Panther bullpen in the latter stages for a 7-5 comeback win.

“We’ve played five out of the last six days,” said Fitch. “We’ve got three pretty good starters, but when we have to go to the bullpen, there’s nothing but pups. It’s kind of frustrating, but hopefully we can get back on track with all the make-up games out of the way now.”

Joe Bryant led off the game with a single, and stole second and third base to get into scoring position. Powell Bryant followed his twin brother with a home run hit over the left field fence.

Drew Burks reached on a single, and came in when Ben Wainwright hit a home run over the centerfield wall to give the Panthers an early 4-0 advantage.

They had two more runners on base when Catholic finally ended the turn. Cabot added one more run in the bottom of the second inning to go up 5-0 before the Rockets began to come back in the third inning.

Burks was 2 of 2 and Wainwright was 2 of 2 with a home run.

The Panthers are now 11-6 overall and 3-4 in the 7A-Central Conference.

SPORTS >> Red Devils closer to clinching

Leader sportswriter

Jacksonville came one step closer to wrapping up a first-round bye in the upcoming 6A state baseball tournament with 12-3, 12-2 wins over Little Rock Parkview at Hickingbotham Field in Dupree Park on Tuesday.

Unbeaten Searcy has all but secured the 6A-East Conference title with three games to go, which has left the Red Devils (14-5, 8-2 conf.) all alone in second place, two games ahead of Jonesboro and Mountain Home.

Tuesday’s twin routs began with a five-run spree for the Devils in the first inning of Game 1. Michael Harmon earned the win at the mound through six innings, while Michael Lamb closed the game out in the top of the seventh.

The Red Devils put up four hits in the bottom of the first while going through the lineup. They added four more runs in the third, and scattered three more in the fourth and fifth innings.

“That was good to see,” said Jacksonville coach Larry Burrows. “We had some good swings in that first inning. We still fell off a little bit, but what I’m expecting is that first inning. We haven’t done that in a while. We’re getting closer to everyone swinging the bats.”

A leadoff triple with a shot to left field by Terrell Brown got the ball rolling for Jacksonville in the bottom of the first, followed by a RBI double by Caleb Mitchell for the first run. Patrick Castleberry reached when he was hit by a pitch, and an error on a bunt by Nick Rodriguez loaded the bases for the Red Devils.

Logan Perry scored Mitchell and Castleberry on a fielder’s choice to shortstop to make it 3-0, and Perry came in on a single by Tommy Sanders. Seth Tomboli got the final hit of the frame when he doubled to left to bring in Sanders.

Harmon and the Jacksonville defense sent the Patriots three-up and three-down through the first three innings. Parkview did spark a small rally in the top of the fourth when it scored three runs off a walk, a double and an error, but Harmon retired eight of the final 10 batters he faced. He gave up a pair of walks to start the top of the sixth before forcing two groundouts and a pop-up. Lamb sandwiched a forced pop-up between a pair of Ks in the top of the seventh to end it.

Sanders was 2 of 2 with a RBI. Brown finished with a triple and two RBI, while Mitchell had a double and two RBI. Tomboli added a double and three RBI.

Parkview had only one hit in the game and Harmon walked four batters, with one defensive error for the Red Devils. The Patriots gave up eight hits and had five errors.

“Mentally, we weren’t there for a few innings,” said Burrows. “I expect us to be there mentally all the time, because it caused some situations, but we’ve got three weeks to be exactly where we want to be.”

Tomboli earned the win at the mound in the nightcap with an 11-strikeout, four-hit and five-walk performance through all seven innings for the right-handed senior. Castleberry led the sticks, going 2 of 4 with a home run and two RBI. Jessie Harbin was 2 of 3, while Mitchell and Perry each finished with a pair of RBI. Brown scored three runs.

Jacksonville will play a 6A-East doubleheader at Jonesboro on Tuesday before hosting a non-conference game with Cabot on Friday. The Red Devils will wrap up league play the following Friday when they host Marion for a doubleheader.

SPORTS >> Leader Player of the Year: Adam Sterrenberg, Cabot

Leader sports editor

Jerry Bridges came out of the locker room, his eyes red and his voice still quivering with emotion. His Cabot Panthers had just been beaten by Fayetteville in the 7A state semifinals in Fort Smith and he had just held his final post-game locker room gathering with his five senior starters.

With all of that on his mind, and with a bevy of sportswriters gathered around with their recorders at the ready, Bridges was intent on getting one thing cleared up right away.

“Tell whoever that got Adam Sterrenberg’s name wrong in (that day’s edition of Fort Smith’s Southwest Times Record) to learn to read a program, okay?” Bridges said, his voice still quivering, but now with anger. “I mean, guys, he’s one of the best players in the state and you ought to know how to spell his name.”

That might give some indication of just how highly Bridges regards Adam Sterrenberg.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best player in the state,” Bridges said of his leading scorer the past two seasons. “And he’s just a pleasure to coach. Everybody sees what he does on the floor, but he just makes showing up for work fun.”
What Sterrenberg does on the floor numbers can’t quite capture. But they can give an idea. Sterrenberg, who has earned the 2009 Leader Player of the Year award, poured in 23 points a game, dished out three-and-a-half assists, grabbed three-and-a-half rebounds and snagged 2.1 steals.

“He made my job easier, I can tell you that,” Bridges said. “He’ll be missed quite a bit. And not just for his playing but for what kind of kid he is. He has great parents. I love that kid.”

Jerry Bridges’ loss is John Brady’s gain. The Arkansas State head coach signed Sterrenberg last winter to try to fill a scoring and point-guard void. With Sterrenberg, he’ll be getting both.

“When we got here, we identified our top needs,” said Brady, who just completed his first year at the Red Wolves’ helm only three years after taking the LSU Tigers to the Final Four. “We needed a point guard and a guard who could play off the ball, too. Adam can do both.”

But Brady, who lost an able point guard to graduation this season, said he is inclined to play Sterrenberg at the point, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother Sterrenberg a bit. Sterrenberg played point full time his junior season and shared point-guard duties with Seth Bloomberg this season.

“I like playing off guard better,” Sterrenberg said. “Last year (Arkansas State) kind of lacked shooting from what I saw. So I’m hoping I can help out there. But I had to play point guard for the (AAU) Arkansas Wings when (Baylor-bound A.J. Walton) went out, so I’m used to it.

“And that was against some really tough competition. I don’t think it will be too different, really. If I have an open shot, I’ll take it, but I’ll be trying to get other people involved.”

Brady said that, in not just his offense but in just about everybody’s offense in the modern day game, point guards have to be a scoring threat.

“The way people are guarded these days, he needs to be a scorer as well as a point guard,” Brady said. “Our point last year was good, but people started backing off of him.”

You back off of Sterrenberg at your own peril. Guarding him too closely runs its own risks, as well. That wasn’t always the case, Sterrenberg said. Before this season, his scoring was mostly limited to three-point shooting and drives to the basket. This year, he developed a mid-range game, making him even more lethal.

“Coach Bridges worked with me a lot on that and it’s really helped out a lot,” he said.

But what may make Sterrenberg most effective – beyond his deadly perimeter shooting, beyond his talent for getting to the rim and finishing – is his ability to create his own shot. He requires little space to launch it and his accuracy is only marginally diminished when on the move or when well guarded.

If you were at the Russellville game at Panther Pavilion on Jan. 30, that needs no further explanation. Cabot was down nine late in the game and in danger of falling to 2-3 in the conference race. That’s when Sterrenberg demonstrated that, guard him as much as you like, if he’s on, you’re in trouble. Over the final four minutes and 55 seconds of that contest, Sterrenberg rained in 22 points, which included 17 points over the final two minutes and 20 seconds. Cabot won the game to launch a 13-game winning streak.

After the game, Russellville’s coach said his players were coming up to him and saying, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m guarding him.’

“It felt like everything I put up was going in,” he said. “That’s probably the greatest thing I’ve ever felt. I loved that feeling. I wish it would happen more often, to be honest.”

It happened often enough. Maybe not on that same Superman level, but on a level seldom seen at the high school level. Over seven games, beginning with the Russellville outburst, Sterrenberg averaged 28 points.

Bridges said Sterrenberg’s biggest improvement from his sophomore to his senior year was strength.

“He could do everything he wanted as a sophomore,” he said. “But lack of strength kind of held him back.”

The 6-3 Sterrenberg said he hopes to put on about 25 pounds of muscle.

“He needs to get stronger,” Brady said. “But we’ll provide him with an opportunity to do that with our program. Defensively, he’s going to have to become a little more aggressive, but that comes with strength.”

Bridges, who first became aware of Sterrenberg when Bridges’ son, Jack, was playing AAU ball in the 8th grade, said Sterrenberg deserves everything he’s getting because he puts so much hard work into his game. He said he knew from the start that Sterrenberg was ambitious and had a goal of playing college basketball.

ASU, he added, has gotten a good one.

“With the ball in his hands, Adam’s the best scorer I’ve ever had,” Bridges said. “He’s got a knack for scoring, even when his shot isn’t falling. If you look at him, you might not think he could do the things he does, but his hard work is the reason he’s getting all the accolades.

“Arkansas State is getting a steal.”

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

TOP STORY >> Base says it depends on doctors in the area

Leader staff writer

If Jacksonville Medical Clinic closes, it will significantly affect airmen and their families who depend on its services, say base leaders.

Relocation of the clinic to Sherwood is a possibility if a second appraisal of the building does not bring down rents to an affordable level.

Closure of the clinic “would have an adverse impact on our clinic, our patients and the mission of Little Rock Air Force Base,” says Col. David Stanczyk, commander of the 19th Medical Group at Little Rock Air Force Base.

According to Stanczyk, airmen rely heavily on the clinic, which is located two miles from the base. The proximity to the base has been convenient for base personnel and families and has facilitated a close working relationship over the years between the clinic physicians and those on base. During times of physician shortages on base, the clinic has supported the 19th Medical Group.

“The outstanding medical care rendered by our civilian medical partners is essential to maintaining the health of our patients,” Stanczyk said. “They routinely see our overflow patients and prevent unnecessary drives to Little Rock for care.”  

The clinic is one of several located in Cabot, Jacksonville and Sherwood that the base relies on for medical services, Stanczyk noted, that provide “outstanding support in meeting the overflow acute care needs of patients enrolled to the 19th Medical Group. We sincerely hope this relationship continues for many years to come.”

The possible relocation of the 11-doctor medical group to Sherwood is on hold until a second appraisal can be completed on the clinic building, which is located next to North Metro Medical Center on Braden Street.

The doctors sought the first appraisal last fall after being informed by hospital management a year ago that the rent on the building was going up. By law, the hospital must rent clinic space in accord with a property’s market value.

The findings of the first appraisal, which doctors contest is more in line with west Little Rock real estate values those of than north Pulaski County, forced their rent up from $5 per square foot to $17 per square foot, or $459,000 a year. But the higher rent includes maintenance and other services provided by the hospital, which the doctors used to pay for until this year because of the lower rent.

St. Vincent Medical Center/North in Sherwood has offered the Jacksonville doctors $14 a square foot, which would save them about $100,000 a year. When the second appraisal will be finish is not yet certain. Clinic management said that a timeline has not yet been established.

Sharron Stephens, administrator of the Jacksonville Medical Clinic, said she hopes that the medical group can remain in Jacksonville.

“We are concerned for a lot of our senior patients who can’t find doctors,” if the clinic closes, she said. Finding a physician willing to take Medicare patients is difficult, because the Medicare reimbursement rate only meets overhead expenses.

At the first of the year, the doctors at the clinic severed their employee relationship with North Metro Medical Clinic. With that came another change that has troubled a special group of Jacksonville seniors – hospital auxiliary volunteers.

The non-paid auxiliary workers who served at the clinic were let go; only the two who are paid stayed on. There was no choice, said Stephens.

Some of the volunteers who were dismissed had served at the clinic for many decades and are saddened by the change, they told The Leader.

“We can’t have the auxiliary here because the clinic is now for-profit, Stephens said. “It is just a labor board rule. It is not that we did not want them.”

TOP STORY >> Area schools get top grades

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District has five top-rated schools, including three in the Jacksonville area and one in Sherwood, under a new rating scale by the state Education Department.

The new ratings are part of the department’s annual Arkansas School Performance Report Card, which will soon be delivered to parents across the state. Under the rating, schools receive a score of one to five, with one being the worst and five the best.

Schools with a Gains Rating of a five or four are receiving $100 from the state for every student who made upward gains.

Area schools in PCSSD that received a five rating include Warren Dupree Elementary (awarded $8,300), Tolleson Elementary ($6,700), Harris Elementary ($6,300) and Oakbrooke Elementary ($11,200).

Cabot also had a top-scoring school — Westside Elementary, which received a rating of five and will receive $5,600.

The Badger Academy in Beebe also scored a five and is netting $700.

Area schools that rated a four include Lonoke Elementary ($24,700), Lonoke Middle School ($37,800) and Carlisle Elementary ($15,900).

In Cabot, schools with a four rating include Southside Elementary ($7,000), Northside Elementary ($7,600), Ward Central Elementary ($7,700), Magness Creek Elementary ($8,200), Cabot Middle School South ($65,400) and Cabot Middle School North ($59,900).

PCSSD schools with a four rating include Cato Elementary ($8,100), Pinewood Elementary ($10,100) and Arnold Drive Elementary ($3,900).

Beebe Intermediate ($21,700) as well as Southwest Middle School ($52,600) in Searcy also received fours.

The Cabot School District has the only school in the area — the Academic Center for Excellence, an alternative school — with a one rating and is “in need of immediate improvement.”

Cabot also has four other sub-performing schools — Central Elementary, Stagecoach Elementary, Cabot Junior High South and Cabot Junior High North — that had a two score and are “on alert” according to the Gains Rating.

Seven PCSSD schools are “on alert” and they include Bayou Meto Elementary, Jacksonville Middle Girls School, Sylvan Hills Middle School and Northwood Middle School.

Beebe Junior High and Ahlf Junior High in Searcy were also rated a two.
Even though students at those schools may have scored well on the benchmark, they are not improving from year to year, according to the state.

To determine a school’s Gains Rating score, the state looks at students’ progression on the required benchmark exams.Upward movement results in a positive score and downward movement results in a negative score for that student.

All student scores are added together and then divided by the number of students at that school to obtain the average gain for the school.

Schools given a score of five are considered “schools of excellence for improvement,” those with a four rating are “schools exceeding improvement standards,” a three score means “schools are meeting improvement standards,” a two means “schools on alert” and a rating of one is for “schools in need of immediate improvement.”

The new rating, along with other indicators, make up the school performance report card. “Parents of children in our public schools deserve to know how their schools are measuring up,” said Dr. Ken James, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education.

“The report card provides a way for parents to compare their individual school to other schools in their district and their district to other districts in the state.”

TOP STORY >> Cabot schools score high marks

Leader staff writer

Seven Cabot schools have received high ratings and financial bonuses for gains made on student achievement tests last year. The recognition is part of the Arkansas School Performance Report Card, which lets parents, educators and communities know how their schools are doing in terms of improving academic performance. It is based on literacy and mathematics test data for grades third through eighth.

Westside Elementary School received a top rating of five based on its gain in the number of students who moved to a higher category on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam in 2008, compared to 2007. A school will receive a $5,600 cash award calculated according net changes on the Benchmark exam performance levels, which are below basic, basic, proficient or advanced.

According to a new feature in this year’s school performance reports, schools statewide were scored on a scale of one to five according to gains in improvement on the Benchmark, with five being the highest score. Schools scoring five were declared schools of excellence; schools scoring four were declared schools exceeding improvement standards.

Those scoring three are called schools meeting improvement standards. With a score of two, a school is approaching improvement standards and is put on “alert.” Schools with a score of one are deemed schools needing immediate improvement.

Six Cabot schools received a score of four and cash awards: Southside Elementary ($8,700), Northside Elementary ($7,600), Ward Central ($7,700), Cabot Middle South ($65,400), Cabot Middle North ($59,900) and Magness Creek ($8,200).

Eastside Elementary School received a score of three.

Four schools received a score of two: Central Elementary, Stagecoach Elementary, Cabot Junior High North and Cabot Junior High South.

The Academic Center for Excellence received a score of one.

School Superintendent Tony Thurman is troubled by the school rating system, which may confuse parents who are being mailed a performance report on their child’s school. He wants them to understand that the gains model is an effective tool for measuring how well a school is doing to bring up low test scores, but for high-proficiency schools, it is not a good indicator of performance.

“The gains information presented on the report card is extremely misleading,” Thurman said. “For instance, we have schools that haven’t performed as well overall with higher gain scores than schools with considerably higher proficiency scores. Basically, it was more difficult for a school to score high using the gains formula if they were already scoring above 90 percent proficient on the state exams. A school that was scoring in the 60 percent proficient range was able to gain more in proficiency and thus scored higher on the gains index.”

Thurman pointed out that Stagecoach and Central elementary schools have lower gains scores but are two of the higher performing schools in the Cabot district. For example, Central’s students outperformed students statewide on average on both the literacy and mathematics proficiency exams.

“It is frustrating for one of the highest performing elementary
schools in the state to be ranked so low using this formula,” Thurman said.

Thurman said he hoped that school patrons “look at the proficiency percentages of the overall population of the school for a balanced perspective on how a school is doing.”

In regard to the Academic Center of Excellence (ACE), the one Cabot school to receive a one, Thurman said, “We realize that we have a lot of work to do at ACE but feel good about the programming we are providing for these students.

The ACE is a conversion charter school which opened in 2004 under the auspices of Cabot Public Schools. The school provides an alternative learning environment, which includes individualized instruction to students who are at risk of dropping out.”

According to the school performance study, “meaningful” gaps in achievement exist for certain student subgroups, in some grades, on either the literacy or mathematics portion of the Benchmark exam.

For example, fewer third and fourth-graders with disabilities scored at proficient or above on either section of the test. Girls out-performed boys on the literacy portion for both grades and on mathematics in fourth grade. (See chart for proficiency percentages for all subgroups for the third and fourth-grade Benchmark exams.)

Thurman said that the Cabot district is “addressing achievement gap concerns first and foremost by ensuring that every student is receiving a high level of instruction based on grade level learning goals in every classroom.

There may always be students that struggle even with high quality instruction. For those students, regardless of the subpopulation, we must provide additional support to ensure their success. This may be assistance from support staff in the building, enrollment in our after school program, or referral to our summer programming.”

Click on image to enlarge view

TOP STORY >> Temporary leader says long-term planning is his goal

Leader senior staff writer

Interim Superintendent Rob McGill says he’s taking the long view when assessing the needs of the Pulaski County Special School District and its students.

If he treats his job as a temporary caretaker until the board chooses a full-time superintendent, “that puts the district at jeopardy. If I make three or six-month decisions, then I’m not doing very good.”

He said he would “take a fresh look at everything, anything.”

“Rebuilding confidence” in the district is a top priority and the first step along that path is completion of an audit of the district books to be sure finances are in order.

“We want to make decisions for the students and be good stewards of the money,” he said.

McGill said the focus is on education with teacher training and staff development. Every student is important and needs to be successful and to meet annual yearly progress.

Of regular complaints by the teachers that they are not backed up by principals on disciplinary issues, McGill, a principal until March 11, said, “(The) safety of the kids and faculty are important to me and we’ll take steps to improve discipline.”

McGill, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Arkansas National Guard, says the district faces big challenges but he’d like the job full time.

He praised Jacksonville board member Bill Vasquez for looking out for his zone’s future while taking the rest of the district’s interests to heart by voting to sell the second-lien bond to build the two new schools out of his zone.

“Jacksonville is part of our district until (that area has its own district). Those kids deserve good decisions,” McGill added.

He said he’s already been out to the Jacksonville Boys Middle School to see what will be required to make the building ready for twice as many students when the school goes coed next fall.

While a comprehensive audit ordered by the school board and the shift to coed schooling at Jacksonville Middle School demand immediate attention, the long-range goal is to improve academics throughout the district.

Supt. James Sharpe and chief financial officer Larry O’Briant both resigned under duress in March, but McGill said other employees need not fear for their jobs. As always, he said, employees will be judged by performance on the job.

“There is no vendetta,” he said. “No names on a list that need to go. We’ve got a lot of decisions to be made and work to do,” he said.

Although McGill took over on the heels of a long and messy struggle between Sharpe and some members of the school board, at least some central office administrators say he seems organized and efficient.

In some districts, the superintendent leads and the board follows. In PCSSD, recent history has shown that the board members consider the superintendent their top employee and they expect him to do what they want.

The board bought out the contracts of his three immediate predecessors.

McGill said he would work to communicate well with the board members, “let them know of my philosophy and if they don’t match, then we’ll know.”

Also, McGill says the district must make a data-based decision as to whether or not it will have the revenues to repay the $81 million second-lien bond it would sell to finance a new high school at Maumelle and a Sylvan Hills middle school.

It will cost the district $4.7 million a year over 27 years to satisfy the second lien bond, McGill said.

An estimate from Baldwin and Shell Contractors earlier this year put the cost of the new high school at $80 million, which would leave nothing for construction of the Sylvan Hills middle school.

McGill said administrators and Baldwin and Shell already are “working to reduce that by several million.”

According to old estimates, the Sylvan Hills middle school would cost about $25 million, but the new high school was estimated at that time to cost only $45 million — the same school now estimated to be in the $80 million range.

TOP STORY >> Deseg case to be heard on Monday

Leader senior staff writer

Three work days after U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson handed off the decades-old school desegregation case, his replacement notified attorneys for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts and the state attorney general’s office to appear for a 10 a.m. status hearing Monday at the Richard S. Arnold Federal Court Building in Little Rock.

In an order emailed to the parties, Judge Brian Miller directed the parties to be prepared to address the following: (1) whether the Pulaski County School District and the North Little Rock School District have reached unitary status; (2) if the districts have not reached unitary status, what are the impediments to the districts reaching unitary status; (3) if the districts have not reached unitary status, how are these districts distinguished from the Little Rock School District; and (4) if the districts have not reached unitary status, how many more years of federal monitoring will be necessary for the districts to reach unitary status?

The three districts have been entangled in a sprawling desegregation agreement for more than 20 years, seemingly with little progress made toward the goal of desegregation. But last week, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Wilson’s ruling that the Little Rock District was unitary, based on “good faith, substantial compliance” with the agreement.

The court ruled that standard was adequate.

Pulaski County and North Little Rock had both petitioned Wilson for unitary status last year, but Wilson said he would not proceed until the Eighth Circuit ruled on the appeal of his Little Rock unitary ruling.

Asked if PCSSD would be prepared to respond to Miller’s request, district attorney Sam Jones said, “We are working on it. I am rearranging my travel schedule to be present. We will be prepared to answer the judge’s questions.”

“We’ll have counsel there and we’ll have a say on the four issues,” said chief deputy Attorney General Justin Allen. The state is not technically a party to the desegregation agreement.

“We may petition the court to modify settlement payments in the future,” he said.

The state supports the desegregation agreement to the tune of about $60 million a year, payments that could be phased out or stopped once all three districts are ruled unitary and released from court supervision.

“It’s a very complex matter,” said Allen, and the new judge seems to be “homing in on these four issues.”

“It sure sounds like he’s focused on the larger question,” said Will Bond, a lawyer and president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization—one group working toward detaching a standalone Jacksonville/North Pulaski district from PCSSD.

“I’m excited he’s moving along,” Bond said. “Judge Wilson should have set trial dates long ago. It’s time to wrap it up.”

Bond said that with the plaintiff in the original case, Little Rock School District, being declared unitary, they have “clearly established a significant change in circumstance over the length of the case,” Bond said.

TOP STORY >> Could city build its own schools now?

Leader staff writer

Could Jacksonville build its own new schools now and lease them to the Pulaski County Special School District until the city has its own district, Aldermen Gary Fletcher asked during the Jacksonville City Council meeting Thursday night.

The council was reaffirming its support of a separate Jacksonville district and asked Mayor Tommy Swaim to send another letter to the PCSSD board stating the city’s resolve to have its own school district.

The request to write another letter to the board stating Jacksonville’s position for its own school district comes on the heels of the 8th Circuit Court ruling that frees the Little Rock School District from desegregation monitoring. Both PCSSD and North Little Rock school districts have also filed for their release.

Swaim said the reinforcement letter was needed because the PCSSD school board was wavering on its previous vote to not stand in the way of Jacksonville pursuing its own district.

Alderman Marshall Smith said every council member was for the mayor writing another letter and felt discussion was not necessary.

But Fletcher, a candidate for mayor, wanted to toss out what he called “out-of-the-box” ideas.

He suggested that the city consider making itself an improvement district, therefore charging residents a fee, for the express purpose of constructing new school facilities, and then leasing the buildings to the school district until we get our district.

“Even if it takes another three or four years before we can get our district, we would have some new facilities to start with,” he said.

The mayor said that idea and others have been discussed throughout the years.

City Attorney Robert Bamburg said some of the ideas are legal and some aren’t.

The mayor cited two recent situations. One in northwest Arkansas where a city built school facilities and someone challenged the use of that money. “The city lost and had to pay back the money plus court costs,” he said.

But recently in Bald Knob, the city voted to upgrade its school district and no one, so far, has objected. “But if there is a challenge, it can be costly,” the mayor said.

Swaim also said it wouldn’t do the city or a private group to give money to PCSSD. “The district decides where the money goes. You can ask that it goes for computers in one of our schools, but if the district thinks some other school needs those computers more, that’s where they go.”

“I just think all of our kids deserve decent schools,” said Fletcher, who is one of six candidates seeking to replace the retiring Mayor Swaim.

Alderman Reedie Ray was hopeful that maybe some of the federal stimulus money could be used to at least remodel some of the schools in the city. In the meantime the mayor will prepare the letter to present to the school board at the next PCSSD meeting Tuesday.

In other business:

– Aldermen agreed to spend an additional $583 a month to get Central Arkansas Transportation Authority to add another bus to the Jacksonville-Little Rock route, raising the number of buses from two to three. The mayor said CATA has received a three-year grant to add the additional bus. The grant will cover half the cost, leaving Pulaski County, Sherwood and Jacksonville to pick up the rest.

After the three years, the city has the option of dropping the additional service or picking up the additional costs. The city already pays CATA $32,484 a year to subsidize the bus service. The additional bus will cost $7,000 a year.

– The council annexed Emmanuel Bible Fellowship Church near Hwy. 107 into the city. The church property encompasses about two acres. The church owners requested the annexation.

EDITORIAL >> Tax code left standing

It is a small miracle that Arkansas has a tax code at all, much less one that provides people with a modest level of services at a cost most of them find affordable. The legislature will adjourn in a few days after having done only negligible harm to the tax system. The lawmakers seemed propelled last week toward serious destruction.

The House of Representatives passed a rash of bills to reduce or eliminate taxes on a variety of special interests, notably investors, but Gov. Beebe got the bills stopped in the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee. His finance men told the committee that the tax cuts would wreck his carefully constructed budget, which may collapse on its own from the weight of economic blight. He is counting on the carryover surplus from good times to pay for schools, colleges, prisons and public health services the next two years while the state lowers its taxes.

Beebe asked the legislature at the beginning to reduce the sales tax on groceries another penny so that he could keep his campaign promise in 2006 to phase out the tax over time. The sales tax cut is a modest help to most families though not much to the poor, whose federally subsidized nutrition is tax exempt. Manufacturing companies insisted on their biennial tax break, this time a reduction in sales taxes on the energy they use, and the governor acquiesced but said no more.

Comfortable apparently that Beebe would veto any other tax breaks they passed and save them from their folly, representatives whooped through a half-dozen tax cuts last week and sent them to the Senate. They can tell a number of business interests, including investors who trade property, “I voted to cut your taxes.” The beneficiaries will be suitably grateful for the gesture when it is time to raise campaign money.

But one of the bills that was trapped in the Senate Monday actually deserved passage, the only one that would correct an injustice in the tax code. It was HB 1378 by Rep. Allen Maxwell, D-Monticello, which would fix an error the legislature committed when it adjusted the income levels at which low-income people would have to pay income taxes. The bill would correct the law so that single heads of households with two or more children would not pay income taxes if their gross earnings were less than $17,200. It would provide about $3 million in relief to people who surely need it the most, mainly single mothers working at minimum wage. The mother of two or more earning up to $21,300 could claim a small tax credit.

If you are keen on providing real help to those who are struggling and not on scouring for campaign help in the next election, here is a way to do it. Tyson Foods would get by nicely if it had to continue paying a sales tax on its fuel and most of us if we had to pay 3 cents on the dollar instead of 2 on the grocery bill, but the extra change in the weekly check of a single mother working for minimum wage might make a difference in the lives of her brood. Governor Beebe should make an exception to his no-more rule and invite the Senate to send him the bill.

EDITORIAL >> Ridiculous proposal

Though it is wordy, clumsy and often outmoded, the Arkansas Constitution is usually better left untouched than modified by the legislature or interest groups that have an axe to grind. It is seldom amended in ways that protect the natural rights or expand the opportunities of citizens of the Natural State. That is a prediction for the current legislative session, which will place three amendments on the 2010 ballot.

As things stood Tuesday, the legislature was apt to ask voters to give private interests another opportunity to get a fork into the state treasury and to lift the ceiling on what lenders may charge borrowers for credit. Those were still questionable, but the lawmakers had no hesitation in putting one perfectly ridiculous proposal on the ballot. Amendment 1 of 2010 will guarantee the right to hunt, fish and trap in Arkansas.

You didn’t know that those are illegal activities now? Well, they are legal and there is no effort to ban them. The author, Sen. Steve Faris of Malvern, said he had read about a dispute in Minnesota and Michigan over whether mourning doves were songbirds rather than game birds and should not be hunted. He thought somebody someday might want to stop hunting, fishing or trapping a fish, fowl or mammal in Arkansas and he had better head it off. Thus, a constitutional amendment.

As constitutional law, it would be meaningless. The state Game and Fish Commission could override any particular law. If a group ever wanted to ban the hunting of mourning doves in Arkansas, they could get up a constitutional amendment to ban it and persuade the public of its benefits, the same as they would have to do without the constitutional amendment.

But what is the harm in having meaningless verbiage in the Constitution if it makes somebody feel good since the Constitution is full of such stuff now — a ban on dueling and on feudal tenures, authority to create volunteer cavalries and artillery companies, a ban on atheists holding office or testifying (and protection for atheists to hold office and testify) and pages of tedium that have nothing to do with the fundamental rights of people who live here. That is the point. It trivializes and disrespects the fundamental law. We just wish they wouldn’t do it.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

SPORTS >> Lady Panthers hit stride for mid-season run

Leader sportswriter

A fast start and a strong finish for Cabot resulted in a 11-0 blowout win over Russellville on Monday at Conrade Field. The Lady Panthers (9-5, 5-2 7A Central conf.) put up eight runs in the bottom of the first inning on their way to earning the run-rule after six innings.

“All in all, they did a good job,” said Lady Panther coach Becky Steward. “This is probably the second or third game that we’ve been able to put hits together consecutively and score off of them. We’ve been trying to do that all year long, and maybe we answered them today.”

Cabot worked the middle of the field in the bottom of the first, and took advantage of four errors by the Lady Cyclone defense.

Leadoff hitter Becca Bakalekos was the first to expose the weakness with a grounder that ended up as an error at shortstop.

Pete Reed hit to the same spot from the three-hole slot which resulted in another error on the throw to first. That allowed
Bakalekos to score for the first run of the game.

But it didn’t end there. Jenny Evans hit a fielder’s choice that turned into the third Russellville error, followed by another error at shortstop that allowed Brooke Taylor to reach and load the bases.

Pitcher Cherie Barfield got a walk off Russellville hurler Andrea Dixon for a bases-loaded walk that scored Reed, while Tara Boyd followed with the first actual hit of the game. Boyd sent a fly into right field for a double to bring in Evans and Taylor to make it 4-0. Sara Martin then drove in Barfield with a single, which brought Cabot back to the top of the order.

Bakalekos hit a double to left field to drive in Boyd, and Chelsea Conrade followed with the biggest hit of the game. Conrade sent a Dixon offering deep into centerfield for a triple, and scored Martin and Bakalekos to make it 8-0. Dixonfinally stopped the bleeding for Russellville by forcing a pop-up to second for the third out.

Defensively, the Lady Panthers sent Russellville three-up and three-down for the first three innings, including four strikeouts for Barfield.

The first slip came at the start of the fourth inning with an error at first, while Barfield gave up her first and only hit of the game to Lady Cyclone Chelsea White with two outs and one on. Barfield responded by fanning Savannah Jackson to leave two stranded for Russellville.

Despite one hiccup in the fourth, first baseman Martin showed lots of hustle and vast improvement from the start of the season. Martin, a junior, is a third-baseman by nature, but Steward said her move across the diamond was a necessary one.

“She’s not comfortable with it, but she’s going to have to get there quick,” said Steward. “She’s made some improvements, she just needs to continue to improve.”

Barfield ended the game with 10 strikeouts, while allowing only one hit and no walks.

“She was pretty solid. I still wish she would get more control,” said Steward. “From inning to inning, sometimes she has the tendency to get a little wild. She always comes back, but one of these days, it might not be able to come back.”

Cabot finished things off an inning early in the bottom of the sixth. Conrade led off the inning with a single, and Reed doubled to move her to third.

Conrade scored when Taylor beat the throw to first for an infield hit, and Kristi Flesher doubled in the final two runs.

Conrade and Boyd were both 2 of 3 with two RBI. Barfield was 2 of 2 with a RBI.

The Lady Panthers also picked up a pair of wins over the weekend in the Batesville tournament before falling 3-1 to Paragould in the championship game. Cabot advanced to the final with a huge 9-3 over the host Lady Pioneers. Barfield recorded 14 strikeouts for the game and 32 for the weekend.

Cabot hosted Conway on Tuesday, and will play at Mount St. Mary on Thursday before hosting Beebe in non-conference play on Friday.

SPORTS >> Defense avoids TKO for Petrino

Special to The Leader

Had it been boxing instead of a football scrimmage, the Razorbacks’ defense never would have made it up from the canvas.

The fight would have been stopped.

But fortunately for the defense, in a Bobby Petrino supervised scrimmage, the fight goes on and on, and on.

That allowed the defense to establish itself before the end of the 165-play scrimmage last Saturday at Razorback Stadium for the glass half-empty/half- filled review that head coaches prefer for an intrasquad scrimmage.

Petrino got to praise the offense for its start and pan it for its finish, while oppositely panning and praising the defense’s ebb and flow.

“Offensively we started fast and made some big plays,” Petrino said. “We broke tackles and caught the ball and ran with the ball after the catch. And then the defense I thought came back in the middle to late part of the scrimmage and stopped the run. So offensively you are not happy that we could not run the ball well late in the scrimmage and defensively you are happy they were flying around and stopping the run. It comes down to consistency on both sides of the ball and starting and finishing strong.”

The offense’s start just reconfirms what’s already suspected. This offense, which scrimmaged without top injured running backs Michael Smith and Dennis Johnson, flashes the big-play potential of the Petrino-coached offensive juggernauts at Louisville.

But in a real SEC game, should the defense open like in last Saturday’s scrimmage, it’s just too much catch-up for most any offense to carry out.

“That was terrible the way we started,” senior safety Matt Harris said. “It was kind of getting hit in the mouth a few times, just waking us up. It took us a couple of series to get embarrassed. That’s one thing we’ve got to take from this film and change because there is no way we can come out like this. We have to come out a lot faster than that.”

At least they did come out of it, and at least they dominated last week’s April 1 scrimmage.

Neither occurred last spring.

In fact, after the D dominated last April 1 after getting scorched in the first spring’s first Saturday scrimmage, third-year sophomore linebacker Jerry Franklin of Marion said it was the first time he ever left the spring practice field thinking defense had truly triumphed.

So there’s a long way to go to instill the defensive can-do for them to believe they can do it.

“Our leadership still isn’t strong enough,” second-year defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “It’s got to continue to get better. Today we were getting that type of feedback but it took awhile. I thought as the day went on we got better.”

In addition to senior tackle Malcolm Sheppard, “he always gives you everything he has,” Robinson said. Robinson saw middle linebacker Wendel Davis exerting go-to senior leadership.

“I think Wendel is starting to get into it,” Robinson said. “He’s the guy who has started taking leadership in the huddle.”

Many seem to assume incoming JC transfer defensive backs Anthony Leon and Rudell Crim and touted incoming freshmen Darius Winston of Helena-West Helena and David Gordon will take command upon reporting for the August preseason.

In particular, junior cornerback Isaac Madison has stood out as a 2008 starter making strides to begin 2009 with a fresh start.

Madison intercepted a Ryan Mallett pass last Saturday and also drew Robinson’s praise for the April 1 scrimmage.

“He’s covering better and tackling better,” Robinson said. “Isaac has not only improved on the pass phase of it but watching him Wednesday he showed great courage on the tackling aspect.”

A former NFL defensive coordinator, Robinson, believes many cornerbacks mistakenly think pass-defense totally covers the corner’s market.

“If these kids have a long-term aspiration to be in the NFL and think ‘I don’t have to be a great tackler to be a great corner,’ they are getting bad information from somebody because that’s not true,” Robinson said. “But I think Isaac is improving.

“He’s becoming more conscientious day in and day out because he’s starting to see how good he can be.”

Trainer Joe Sheehan and his staff will monitor offensive guard Seth Oxner and tight end Chris Gragg this week. Both were injured during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Oxner, the third-year sophomore from Monticello, started last Saturday’s scrimmage as a first-team guard.

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills still atop Southeast standings

Leader sportswriter

Sylvan Hills has all but wrapped up the 5A Southeast Conference with a 7-0 league record this spring, but it’s not fear of losing that motivates the Bear soccer program, it’s the fear of simply being scored on.

Hillside has shut out every conference opponent to date, including a 9-0 rout over county rival North Pulaski on Monday at Bill Blackwood Field. Forward Jacob Persson led the way with four goals, with two goals by two-sport star Matt Cable, two by junior Josh Persson and a goal by Jeff Hern.

“This is the deepest team I’ve had by far,” said Bears coach Sam Persson, now in his fourth year at the helm. “The seniors this year were freshmen when I started, and they have all really developed. People are really motivated and focused this year. The strength and leadership of the seniors has translated into the younger players fitting in the spots we needed them to.”

The Bears (9-1-1 overall) began their season with a 4-1 loss to two-time defending Class 6A champions Searcy. Sylvan Hills has been in the 6A-East Conference with the Lions during their title runs in 2007 and 2008, but dropped down a classification at the start of the ’08-’09 school year.

They went 2-0-1 in an early season tournament that included a 3-3 tie with Episcopal Collegiate Studies, making the total tally of goals scored against them seven for the season.

Persson credits much of that with a change in defensive strategy at the start of the season. Out was the flat-back defense, which stretches the four defenders across the width of the field, and in was the sweeper-stopper system, which concentrates defensive strength in the middle of the field.

“We made some mistakes with it early on,” said Persson. “But the kids have really bought into it. This is the best defense for high school soccer – it’s a little bit easier.”

Senior Kevin Lassen has led the surge on defense as a stopper, with help from sweeper and senior team captain Daniel Johnson.

The defense is where the core of senior leadership shows the strongest for Sylvan Hills, with Aaron Maxey and Barry Bir. Bir returns after missing his junior season, along with Lasson and forward Jeff Herns. Johnson shares co-captain duties with midfielder Scott Hicks and Maxey.

“They can get in and really physical. It’s a good combination,” said Persson.

The Bears are not just resigned to being a defensive power, however. Their offensive strength matches the strength on defense with multiple scorers, led by junior forward Jacob Persson. Josh Persson has also contributed several goals this season, along with Jeff Hern.

Hern will be the only offensive player lost to graduation in May, giving the Bears a solid core of retuning players next season.

“Offensively, we won’t miss a beat,” said Sam Persson. “Defensively, we’re going to miss those four seniors.”

Along with Josh and Jacob, who are cousins to coach Persson, little brother Phillip Persson serves as his goalkeeper. All three will be returning seniors next season.

“It makes it a little harder to coach in a sense,” said Sam Persson. “Because you want to make sure that you don’t play any favorites, but I think we’ve been able to balance that pretty well.

“They’ve all played at the club level and don’t need a lot of coaching, and they’ve been a pretty good example to some of the others.”

Sylvan Hills will wrap up the regular season next week at home with a non-conference rematch with Searcy on Monday before closing out its Southeast schedule against Monticello on Tuesday and Mills University Studies on Friday.

With an eight-game winning streak and unblemished record in conference, Persson said the main thing he is guarding against at this point is the dreaded overconfidence factor.

“We try to keep that down to manageable levels,” said Persson. “We have to keep our expectations realistic. There’s competition in the state that’s well beyond what we’re seeing right now. The biggest thing we want to do right now is get out of conference without getting scored on. We would be proud of that if we can pull it off.”

SPORTS >> Cabot downs Russellville

Leader sportswriter

The Cabot Panthers walked their way to a 12-2 run-ruled win over Russellville on Monday night at Conrade Sports Complex in a 7A-Central Conference make-up game. The Cyclones gave up six walks in the bottom of the second inning, and hit another

Cabot batter with a pitch, all of which resulted in a five-run spree for the Panthers.

Tyler Erickson earned the win at the mound for the Panthers (11-4, 3-2 conf.) with a complete-game performance. Erickson gave up four hits and fanned five batters to take the win.

The decisive second inning resulted in only one actual hit for Cabot. Powell Bryant came away with a two-RBI single in the middle of the mess; the rest were gifts from the Cyclones’ shaky southpaw.

“Their coach told me that he had the potential to get wild, and he did,” said Panthers coach Jay Fitch. “They ended up using five pitchers for the game. I guess we got up on them, and they decided to give some of their younger guys some work.”

Russellville started the bottom of the second out on the right track with a strikeout at the six-hole slot, but followed that by giving up the first walk to Erickson. Base-on-balls for Ty Steele and Matt Williams followed to load the bases with one out, and returned the Panthers to the top of the order.

Leadoff batter Joe Bryant was struck by a pitch to give Erickson a free trip across the plate to give Cabot a 2-0 lead. Powell Bryant then singled to bring in Steele and Williams, and a walk for Drew Burks loaded the bases again.

Catcher Ben Wainwright then walked to score Joe Bryant, and a walk for DH Andrew Reynolds sent in Powell Bryant.

Cabot drove in four more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to activate the run-rule.

Powell Bryant was 3 of 4 with three singles and five RBI.

The Panthers made it to the finals of the Batesville tournament over the weekend. They advanced with an 11-5 win over Jonesboro in the first round, and made it to the title game with a 9-6 win over the host Pioneers. That pitted them in a rematch against White Hall, a team they had beaten early in the season. The result did not turn out the same, however, as Cabot ran out of pitching and fell to the Bulldogs 9-2.

Sophomore Cole Nicholson took the win in the opener against Jonesboro in relief. The hitting was spread out for the Panthers with Burks, Wainwright, Turner and Reynolds all recording multiple hits. A big number of those hits came in the decisive third inning, in which Cabot scored eight runs.

Junior C.J. Jacoby earned the win in the semifinal matchup with Jonesboro, while Chase Beasley closed the game out at the mound.

Joe Bryant came up big for the Panthers at the plate, going 3 of 4 with a home run and four RBI. Wainwright was 2 of 4. “He’s quietly been having a good year,” said Fitch of Wainwright. “I think he’s only had one person steal on him the entire season. He has been pretty solid on both sides so far.”

The tourney play and Russellville win on Monday gives the Panthers four wins in their last five outings.

“We’re still a little more inconsistent than what I would like,” said Fitch. “When we have all three of our main pitchers going, we’re pretty tough.”

Bryant was touted as the team to beat in the 7A Central Conference at the start of the year, but have now dropped a pair of league games, including its first to the Panthers. Fitch said he believes the competition is close not only in his league, but all throughout 7A baseball.

“It is so wide open right now,” said Fitch. “We could finish anywhere from first to about sixth, who knows. “It’s a trend in all of 7A. There’s not a dominant team out there. It should get interesting about three weeks from now. Whoever gets hot at the right time will probably be the team that wins it all.”

Monday, April 06, 2009



TOP STORY >> Firefighter held in arsons

Leader Editor-in-chief

A north Pulaski County volunteer firefighter is being held in the Pulaski County Jail on a $25,000 bond after he confessed to setting two area church fires.

Merl White of Cabot, 25, is awaiting a May 21 court hearing on two arson charges.

He confessed to setting fire in February to North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist Church, where he is a member, as well as setting another fire early Wednesday at an abandoned church on Cleland Road. Both are in north Pulaski County.

The blaze at North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist, 6603 John Harden Drive, was extinguished by a water pipe that burst during the fire.

Around 3 a.m. Wednesday, White had called the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office to report a fire at the abandoned church on the corner of Cleland and Roland roads.

The North Pulaski Fire Depart-ment, where White was a firefighter, responded to the blaze, as did the Gravel Ridge and Runyan Acres volunteer fire departments.

During a followup investigation Wednesday evening, White confessed to setting the fire at the abandoned church and at North Jacksonville Missionary Baptist.

Rev. Lyndon Whitledge, the former pastor at the church near the Lonoke County line, was stunned to learn Wednesday that a church member confessed to setting a fire at the church.

“I’m just disappointed when somebody does something like that when we’ve tried to help them,” Whitledge said. “He’s one of the fellows we tried to help.”

He said White, his wife and two young children attended church services together.

“Apparently, he likes setting fires,” the minister said. “They have a feeling of power when they do something like that.

“I think he wanted to get caught,” Whitledge added.

Still, he said he’s not mad at White. “I don’t have animosity toward anybody,” Whitledge said. “We love everybody. Even him. That’s what Christianity requires us to do.”

Church members thought it was a miracle when a water pipe burst in the hallway before the flames could spread into the sanctuary, minimizing damage in the back of the building.

Damage was contained mostly to the gym area, although there was quite a bit of smoke damage in the sanctuary.

“God didn’t want to have the building burned down, although they sure tried,” Whitledge said.

Apparently an accelerant was used in five different spots inside the church, but the arsonist would have had to break through another door to get closer to the sanctuary. He didn’t bother to do that.

“I imagine he’ll go to prison for a long time,” Whitledge said.

TOP STORY >> Speaker’s firm has its critics

Leader staff writer

Sunken treasure hunter Wilf Blum, who spoke recently at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History, says salvaging lost cargo from the ocean floor is expensive and returns are uncertain.

He says he tells potential investors straight up, “This is very, very risky. Don’t invest anything you can’t afford to lose.” Instead, he hopes to sell them gold, his latest moneymaking venture.

Blum’s company is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, but his treasure hunting is centered in the Caribbean.

Blum’s unusual business has attracted attention from the press, as well as criticism from financial-market observers. Three years ago, Chuck Jaffe of MarketWatch singled out Blum’s company as “Stupid Investment of the Week,” warning would-be investors to put their money elsewhere.

On a blog on Deep Blue Marine’s Web site, postings include messages from disgruntled investors and observers of the company.

One unhappy investor who tipped The Leader off about the shaky prospects with Deep Blue Marine described Blum as “a great guy and a talker who is immediately liked,” but that his company’s slick public-relations campaign had “a history of big promises of treasure to keep people buying the stock.”

“We’ve sold all the stock we wanted to,” Blum said in an interview this week.

Recently, Deep Blue Marine has gotten into the business of buying and selling gold to raise the money to keep going.

Blum says no dividends have been issued so far and that “we won’t turn the corner for another two years,” as far as any profits on the horizon are concerned.

Running short of capital to meet expenses, Deep Blue Marine had to sell off stock, “which caused the value of the stock to drop like a rock,” Blum said. “Hopefully, that will change in the future.”

Since going into the underwater salvage business four years ago, Blum and his crews have recovered two airplanes, four boats and a crane from the reservoir above Hoover Dam, which had been lost during construction. Of the ships, one dated to the 1600s, one to the mid-1800s and one to the 1700s. Two were of no commercial value, Blum said.

Danna Kay Duggar, coordinator of the Jacksonville Museum of Military History, said that a state regent for the Daughters of the American Revolution let her know about Blum coming to town to speak at a DAR convention. It was suggested that he speak at the museum while in the area.

“I know he takes investors, but he never mentioned any of that in his lecture,” Duggar said.

TOP STORY >> Water project to cost less

Leader staff writer

The waterline that will connect Cabot to Central Arkansas Water was first estimated at $12 million and then lowered to $11.4 million. But the construction bids for the project that came in this week indicate that it will actually cost about $2 million less.

Although the staff and commission that run Cabot WaterWorks will have to analyze the bids and check the credentials of the bidders before any decision can be made, the lowest of the 12 bids received was $8.9 million and the next two lowest were $9.5 million or less.

Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at 11 a.m. Wednesday to decide who will get the contract to build the 30-inch, 13-mile line from Lake Maumelle to Cabot. Construction is expected to begin this summer and the line should be completed some time in 2011.

During the last monthly meeting, the commission heard a report on audits of Cabot WaterWorks books for 2007 and 2008 that showed the utility is financially sound with good internal controls.

Michael L. Cobb, the certified public accountant who has audited the utility’s books for the three years it has been under the control of a commission, told the commission Thursday night to keep doing what they’re doing.

“You’re in a fiscally sound position that just requires continued prudence,” Cobb said.

Cobb warned that income from water will go down in years when the summers are not too hot and dry and reminded the commission that wastewater rates will need to increase soon.

But those were words that could have gone unsaid. The commission was already fully aware that water profits are down due to a wet summer. And a study for a sewer rate increase is already under way that, with approval of the city council, will relieve wastewater’s “hand-to-mouth” financial status.

One goal was to reduce the overtime at CWW as well as gas consumption. Tim Joyner, CWW general manager, reported to the commission that both are down.

Joyner also made the commission aware of a potential problem with long water lines like those that will run from Little Rock to Cabot through a connection with Central Arkansas Water, which is supposed to supply the city with water after 2023 as well as the one that could connect the city’s system to Greers Ferry Lake.

The disinfectants used to purify surface water can react with the natural materials in the water, such as decaying vegetation, which are a potential health risk, especially if the water stays in the transmission lines for long periods.

The city is under contract with CAW to buy a minimum of 300,000 gallons of water a day up to 9 million gallons a day after the connection is made to CAW.

However, the city’s connection with Greers Ferry through the Lonoke-White Project, which has been in the works for 15 years, is not as certain.

The Cabot Water and Wastewater Commission has agreed to pay for about 250,000 gallons a day to help build that $65 million project, but not the almost 1 million gallons they have been asked to purchase.

No contracts have been signed, said Bill Cypert, secretary and spokesman for the commission. The commission still needs more information before any decision will be made, he said.

Members of the Lonoke White Project will meet at Ward City Hall at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

SPORTS >> Jacksonville makes it eight in a row

Leader sports editor

It may be the mark of a good team that it can win its seventh and eighth games in a row and the head coach not be all that happy.

The Jacksonville Red Devils swept Mountain Home on Wednesday afternoon to improve to 6-2 in the 6A East Conference and capture their eighth consecutive win.

“We didn’t play all that well in the first game,” head coach Larry Burrows said. “We walked too many. But you’re not going to play your best every time out.”

Jacksonville won 10-4 in the opener and cruised to a 12-2 win in the nightcap. Noah Sanders, coming off a no-hit performance, struggled to find the plate in the first game, but Michael Lamb came on in relief and settled things down.

“He came in and threw strikes and got the win,” Burrows said. “He got a double-play ball and then pitched a 1-2-3 inning. You could see us relax.”

Another good thing to come out of the game was the return of Michael Harmon, who has been out since the Searcy series back on March 10. Harmon appeared not to have much rust, striking out five of the six he faced.

Nick Rodriguez was 3 of 4 with a home run, while Terrell Brown had two hits and two RBI. Logan Perry added two hits and two stolen bases.

Seth Tomboli struck out seven in four one-hit innings to win the nightcap. Patrick Castleberry had a home run and two RBI, while Rodriguez continued his solid hitting by going 2 of 3 with three RBI. Brown also had a pair of hits and two RBI.

Jacksonville improved to 11-5 overall, and will host Parkview on Tuesday.

SPORTS >> Sylvan Hills meets little resistance

Leader sportswriter

Blake Evans’ two-run home run in the bottom of the third inning of Game 1 was the only thing historic about Sylvan Hills’ 14-0, 11-0 sweep over North Pulaski on Wednesday at Kevin McReynolds Field in Sherwood.

Evans blasted an offering from Falcons pitcher Eric Olenette over the left field wall for the first home run at the brand new field, which sits just down the hill from the Bears’ former home field that was destroyed by tornadoes last April.

It also drove in freshman DH Blake Baxendale to put the Bears up 10-0 as part of a 10-run Sylvan Hills’ spree in the third.

Senior all-state pitcher and future Razorback D.J. Baxendale earned the win for the Bears, throwing no-hit ball through four innings while striking out five batters. The Falcons reached on fielding errors by the SH defense in the first and second innings, but found no further charity.

Evans took the mound for the final inning, forcing two groundouts and a pop-up to secure the win for Baxendale, who improved to 7-0 on the season.

Falcons hurler Olenette gave up six hits and three walks to Sylvan Hills in the first two innings, but the NP defense was able to minimize the damage. The Bears (18-1) loaded the bases to start the bottom of the first on a single by leadoff Justin Treece, a base-on-balls to Ty Van Schoyck and a single by Nathan Eller.

North Pulaski got Treece out at the plate when the elder Baxendale hit into a fielder’s choice from the cleanup slot, but a walk to Jordan Spears gave Van Schoyck a free trip across the plate for the night’s first score. Olenette then fanned Blake Baxendale for his first of two strikeouts in the game.

Van Schoyck delivered a triple in the bottom of the second to drive in Casey Cerrato and Treece, and advanced when Eller reached on an error. Both came in on a single to right-center by Jordan Spears to put Sylvan Hills up 5-0 after two.

Michael Maddox started the bottom of the third with a free trip to first after being hit with an Olenette pitch, followed by a walk to Cerrato. A sacrifice fly by Treece brought in Maddox, and Van Schoyck singled in Cerrato.

Eller walked, and Spears drove in both runs with a single. He came around when Blake Baxendale reached on an error.

Van Schoyck was 2 of 2 with a triple and two RBI. Treece was 2 of 4 with two RBI. Spears finished with one hit, but reached on all three at-bats and had five RBI for the game. Cerrato also reached three times and had a single.

Baxendale had five strikeouts, and gave up no walks or hits. Olenette gave up 10 hits and five walks, while fanning two.

Eller took the win in Game 2 to complete the 5A-Southeast Conference sweep.

Sylvan Hills was scheduled to play at North Little Rock last night, while the Falcons will host Crossett in a league doubleheader on Tuesday.

SPORTS >> Leader Player of the Year: Ty O'Neill, Beebe

Leader sportswriter

Lora Jackson is a realist. Especially when it comes to replacing Ty O’Neill.

The head Lady Badger has solid talent returning in 2009-10 after an unbeaten run through the 5A-Southeast Conference and a state semifinal appearance this past season. But when it comes to filling the shoes of her departing all-purpose guard, she’s aware of the enormity of the challenge.

“You don’t (replace a Ty O’Neill),” Jackson said before an outburst of laughter. “You can’t look from season to season trying to replace people, you just have to look at the players that you have coming back and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses according to the players that you have. You have to start there and build on it year to year.”

O’Neill, a three-year starter and all-state selection, averaged 24 points per game in the 2008-09 season, as well as five rebounds, four steals and two assists per game. She led the Lady Badgers in scoring throughout the season, including an impressive run through the 5A state tournament. All of that has earned her the 2009 Leader Player of the Year.

O’Neill’s presence on the court is what made the Lady Badgers the preseason nod to win the 5A-Southeast Conference. She had helped lead Beebe to a title the previous year in the 5A-East Conference.

But even after the the Lady Badgers ran the table in conference play, few gave them much of a chance in the postseason.

“I heard that (on message boards),” said O’Neill. “A lot of people talked about that and said that when we got to the state tournament that it would be difficult for us because of our conference. It made me feel good about it, because we beat Greenwood. Everybody talked about Greenwood and the girl that scored 58 points (Laura Davidson) and how they beat Vilonia, so it made me feel really good.”

O’Neill’s 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists staked Beebe to a rout of West Helena in the first round. She followed that with a 23-point performance to help lead Beebe past Greenwood in the quarterfinals, and send the Lady Badgers to the semifinals for the first time in more than a decade.

“It was not only good, but fun,” said O’Neill. “We had a tough preseason, and I think that really prepared us for our conference play. And when we got to the state tournament, we kind of played on a different level, a higher level. A lot of people didn’t expect it, so they were surprised how far we went.”

Beebe was eight minutes away from making the state finals and getting one more shot at powerhouse Vilonia — a team it had lost to decisively early in the season. The Lady Badgers held a 40-26 lead over heavy favorite Siloam Springs heading into the fourth quarter, but a 29-point outburst by the Lady Panthers in the final period led to a 55-52 comeback win, sending O’Neill and her teammates home one game short of school history with a 20-9 final record. Though it was ultimately a losing effort, O’Neill finished her high-school career just as impressively as she started it three years earlier, leading all scorers with 26 points.

“I didn’t think the game was over,” said O’Neill. “The game’s not over until it’s zero on the clock. We kind of got tired in that final game. We had played two games already that week. I don’t really know what happened. I just remember looking at the clock, and we were down by three. It was heartbreaking, because I really thought we were going to go to the state finals and beat Vilonia. Honestly, I thought that.”

While the loss was a tough one to swallow for O’Neill and teammates, she still has plenty to look forward to. Her basketball talent and 3.2 GPA has garnered attention from Conner State Community College in Warner, Okla., and a possible opportunity in the future at Mississippi State.

Her career interests include physical therapy/athletic training, but she also hinted that she might be interested in following Jackson’s footsteps. Jackson, who was a Lady Badger back in the mid 1980s, coached for a number of years at Vilonia before returning to her high-school alma mater.

No one had a better seat to watch O’Neill’s dynamic career than Jackson, who cited a 30-point performance against Batesville in her junior season as her most memorable. O’Neill put up all 30 of those points in one half, and sat out the second half while the seniors lived out their final minutes of glory on their home court. The win over the Lady Pioneers that night also helped Beebe clinch its first conference title in more than a decade.

“This year, she was scoring like she was for us, and everybody knows you’ve got to do what you can to keep her from getting her points,” said Jackson. “I think she did see some physical nights and some nights that maybe weren’t as physical.

“I think she saw a little bit of all of it. We saw that box-and-one this year. We saw it more this year than I’ve seen in my whole coaching career.”

O’Neill’s ball-handling quickness and ability to drive the lane, as well as her solid outside shooting made her a threat any time she had the ball. The seemingly endless stream of junk defenses aimed at containing O’Neill often backfired, and her ability to find an open teammate gave the Lady Badgers an added dimension that doesn’t always come with high-profile players.

“It’s easier in ways because you know some things for certain,” said Jackson. “With her, for example, you knew you weren’t going to get pressed very often. And if you did, you were going to be able to handle that pressure consistently. This year, you knew that hopefully, you were going to get anywhere from 20 to 30 points a game from her.”

Next year will not exactly be a rebuilding season for coach Jackson, who has speedy shooting guard Geneshia Edwards and solid post player Danna Jackson returning, but the departure of O’Neill will leave a lot of voids, she said, leadership being the biggest of those.

“She was an action leader,” said Jackson. “She got out there and did what she had to do as far as work and play. I do feel like this year, she became more of a verbal leader, especially once conference season rolled around.

“She became a verbal leader at times when she felt like she needed to. I think that just comes with maturity. I felt like she fit that role very well and everyone responded to it.”