Wednesday, June 16, 2010

TOP STORY >> Lawyer pins hope on a new district

IN SHORT: Group will have a petition drive on Friday at Walmart.

Leader staff writer

A petition being circulated around Jacksonville is the latest strategy of proponents for a school district in Jacksonville and north Pulaski County, independent of Pulaski County Special School District.

Retired lawyer Ben Rice, who initiated the petition drive about a month ago, hopes a stack of signed petitions would win the backing of another lawyer, John Walker.
Walker is the attorney for Joshua Interveners, a group that for many years has advocated for educational equity for minority students in PCSSD as well as the two other school districts in Pulaski County.

Specifically, the petition supports the establishment of a separate district without the new district having to shoulder any of the debt for new school construction in Maumelle, Sherwood or Chenal, effective upon PCSSD achieving unitary status. The petition states that schools in PCSSD zone 6 (Jacksonville) and zone 5 (north Pulaski County) have been neglected by the district, alluding to research done this spring by Jacksonville High School seniors that showed that those two zones have been recipients of 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of all district capital improvement funding during the last 10 years. Those two zones contribute about a third of total property tax revenues collected for PCSSD, Rice told a gathering Thursday of members of the local chapter of the National Association of Retired and Active Federal Employees (NARAFE).

“That is not right. If you are sympathetic to our plight, please sign it,” Rice told the group as petition sheets were passed around. “We want to get a stack of them as thick as we can. If we can convince John Walker, that should pave the way for this thing to happen. But we will deliver this petition not only to Mr. Walker, but to the state Board of Education. I hope that they can read between the lines and give us a new school district.”

Rice said when he recently sat at a table in front of the Jacksonville Walmart asking for passersby to sign the petition, “African Americans were more ready to sign than Caucasians.”

The Jacksonville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of several groups in town working on the separate school district issue, said Rizelle Aaron, who attended the NARAFE meeting.

Aaron said that he was optimistic that Walker could be won over, but in order to do so, there must be community unity on the issue and an authorized spokesman who can say that a separate district is truly the will of the community.

“Mr. Walker wants to meet with people out here, but if we are not organized, he is likely to walk out and leave us sitting at the table,” Aaron said. “Unless we can come together and have one voice it will be difficult.”

More support from city government as well as civic organizations and churches would help the cause, Aaron said. “Otherwise, it doesn’t appear to be a cohesive group.”

Ivory Tillman, president of the local chapters of the NARAFE and as well as the NAACP, said, “This is not a political meeting, we want that understood. But our concern is to do all we possibly can to get a separate school district.”

Rice told the group that 14 of the 36 PCSSD school facilities are in Jacksonville and north Pulaski County. According to an assessment of conditions of Arkansas’ 1,129 school facilities, 12 of those 14 schools are among the 300 worst in the state. Eight are among the 200 worst, and four are among the 100 worst. The poor condition of Jacksonville schools is hurting the local economy, because people with school-age children are not choosing Jacksonville as their home, Rice said.

In the last 10 years, enrollment in schools in neighboring Cabot has increased 40 percent, while enrollment in Jacksonville schools has declined 23 percent, said Rice, citing statistics in the study by Jacksonville seniors on the impacts of conditions at their school on learning.

As he gathered petition signatures recently, Rice said, one couple from Cabot told him that they moved away from Jacksonville because they did not like the schools.

“They told me if Jacksonville gets its own district, they’d move back,” Rice said.

“Property values are being affected by the schools – that is a very important fact,” Rice said. “This can’t be allowed to limp along. This needs to be brought to a head.”
Rice said that the poor conditions of local schools would be a challenge that a newly formed school district would have to tackle. However, he pointed to two studies on the financial impacts of decoupling from PCSSD. Both concluded that there would be no added financial burden for PCSSD or the new district and in fact found that “it would be better for both to separate.”

Rice, along with Jacksonville Alderman Reedie Ray and state Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, earlier this year filed a brief in federal court asking Judge Brian Miller to rule that Jacksonville and north Pulaski County are entitled to a separate school district. Miller has not yet ruled on that, nor has he issued his findings in the PCSSD desegregation case. In that case, the district is seeking a declaration from Miller that it has attained unity status and should be released from federal court oversight of its desegregation plan, which was instituted in 1989.

If Miller finds that PCSSD has indeed complied with its desegregation plan, that would improve the chances for a separate Jacksonville-north Pulaski County school district.
“There is still potential to have an independent district, even without Miller declaring the district is unitary,” asserted Aaron. “It is easy to get discouraged, but we are on the right track.”

Supporters of an independent school district will hold a petition drive at the Jacksonville Walmart from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday.