Monday, September 27, 2010

TOP STORY >> Hopson upbeat after years of strife

IN SHORT: Superintendent says he can work with new board members and union,
as well as legislators who want accountability.

By Garrick Feldman and John Hofheimer
Leader staff writers

With the election this week of two union-backed school board members, the Pulaski County Special School District Board is likely to rescind its illegal decision to oust the teachers union as collective bargaining agent for the teachers at its next meeting on Oct. 12.

But freshly minted Superintendent Charles Hopson, in an interview with The Leader, says he anticipates no problems working with the unions.

Hopson says he wants an open and transparent administration and toward that end has been meeting with teachers in each board zone, writing a column for the district’s webpage and meeting with representatives of the teachers union.

In the exclusive interview Thursday, Hopson also said the next new school “has to be in the Jacksonville area,” perhaps at Little Rock Air Force Base to replace the decrepit but high-achieving Arnold Drive Elementary School, as well as nearby Tolleson Elementary.

“We can’t keep doing things the way things have been done in the past and expect a different outcome,” Hopson said.

He promised to end the cycle of “inertia and complacency” and make improvements throughout the district.

PCSSD has been losing students for decades, has struggled financially and has failed to meet state standards, but Hopson is promising a turnaround.

“We have a long way to go and a short time to get there,” he acknowledged.

“The district has the potential to be a leader in the state for setting world-class standards,” the superintendent said.

“This district was the largest and wealthiest and most progressive in the state until 1989, when I left Northwood Middle School. It was a new school, one of the most modern in the state. I visited it recently and was stunned how neglected it is. It doesn’t need to be that way.”


Hopson said he welcomes what is likely to be a prolonged period of oversight by the state Bureau of Legislative Audit, in light of the district’s poor history of record keeping, financial management and other issues.

The Bureau of Legislative Audit earlier this year discovered the unauthorized purchase, theft and sale of about $439,000 worth of school property, thousands of dollars in improper travel reimbursement of current school board members Gwen Williams and Mildred Tatum, overpayment of former Supt. James Sharpe and poor oversight of other financial matters.

As a direct result of that, the state Board of Education “pre-warned” the Pulaski County Special School District that it could be headed again for fiscal distress.

“I can see why the public would be outraged by these expenditures,” Hopson said.


Gloria Lawrence of Sher-wood and Tom Stuthard of Jacksonville, both supported by the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and the Pulaski Association of Support Staff replaced union opponents Charlie Wood and Danny Gililland.

Both Lawrence and Stuthard said they were very clear about their roles as policy makers, Hopson said.

“Both were very supportive of the direction we’re taking the district,” he added, and “have a very positive reaction toward the appointments I’ve made.”

Despite recent hires of well-paid non-educators such as Chief Technology Officer Derrick Brown and Chief Operations Officer Col. Derek Scott, Hopson said he believes he’s cut the administrative salary-budget line by about $100,000 by combining and eliminating some jobs.
He said their expertise is already saving the district money.

He said Brown and Scott are experienced experts in their fields and will make the district better and more efficient. “The success rests with people I bring in that will support the vision I have for this district,” Hopson said.


Scott is retired career Air Force officer with years of experience overseeing the maintenance and construction of facilities.

Since he was hired this summer, he’s been assessing district facilities and directing repairs and maintenance. He’s expected to save the district a lot of money in the future serving as construction manager on new construction, Hopson has said.

And the schools would not be in the sorry condition they are if attention had been paid to them throughout the years.

Hopson said instruction needed to drive school design.

Technology not only drives instructional matters, but helps track district finances, according to Hopson. He said Brown had already saved the district thousands of dollars even while purchasing iPads for board members and administrators to use.

He said in the future, teacher and administrator evaluations could be done and filed online, as well as state assessments.

Hopson wants to explore other ideas, such as selling sponsorships for sports stadiums.
When the district needed 50 additional buses, instead of purchasing them for about $4 million to $5 million, the district leased them for $300,000.

Most of those buses were necessary because the board agreed to change the bell schedule for the secondary schools.


My vision is “for every student to leave prepared to enter a rigorous post-secondary experience and to be able to compete at a world-class level,” he said.

To achieve that, it may be necessary to lengthen the school day or even the school year, ideas guaranteed to be unpopular with the unions and many parents.

“We have the shortest school day and year of any first-world country,” he said.

Regarding a new school for Jacksonville—a decision ultimately in the board’s bailiwick—Hopson said Arnold Drive managed to be one of the three best schools in the state while operating in a rundown building.

“People don’t understand some of the great things happening despite challenges with the facilities,” he said.

That school is located on the Air Force base, and the Air Force has offered land for a new school.
But he said when the time comes, he would invite Jacksonville residents to help make that decision.

Promising future

“This is a district with great promise,” the superintendent said. “You can see the promise of what it can be.”

PCSSD is where Portland was 15 years ago, Hopson said, promising to make the same kind of progress here as in his previous job. “It’s been an adreneline rush. I look forward to going to work,” Hopson said.