Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TOP STORY > >PCSSD sets goals to meet

By john hofheimer
Leader senior staff writer

As if the Pulaski County Special School District Board and administration didn’t have enough on its plate, it must prepare for the likelihood that the district will soon be declared unitary and lose much of the $17 million a year it receives in desegregation money from the state, attorney Sam Jones reported at a special meeting Monday.

Jones is the district’s attorney for purposes of the existing desegregation agreement and for its efforts to be ruled unitary (desegregated) in U.S. District Court and thus emerge from court oversight.

District Judge Brian Miller could make such a ruling any time, and two byproducts would be the loss or phase out of the desegregation funds and almost certainly a fresh move by those favoring an independent Jacksonville school district.

Act 395 of 2007, sponsored by former state Rep. Will Bond, then of Jacksonville, provided several sticks and carrots to move PCSSD and its desegregation companions, the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts, toward unitary status, and provided that desegregation funding could be phased out over as long as seven years.

Jones said the loss would not amount to $17 million a year. Some state money the district isn’t currently eligible for would be available, though he didn’t suggest the amount.

Jones told the board, including new members Gloria Lawrence and Tom Stuthard, and new Superintendent Charles Hopson, that the state has hired a consulting firm to study the impact of the loss of such funding on the three districts.

Hopson told reporters that the administration was “working out” how they could handle losing the money, which would amount to about 7 percent of its budget.

Board president Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville said he was confident the district would find a way to make up the money it needed.

The state has engaged Navigant Consulting to assess the financial circumstances of all three Pulaski County districts and to make recommendations to the state and by extension to the three districts, for ways the districts could manage their revenues and expenses to emerge financially sound from an ultimate phase out of state funding, according to Jones. He said the Navigant report could be made at or near the beginning of the next legislative session in January.

“Navigant Consulting (is) looking at your books to make recommendations how the district would respond to the phase-out of this money,” Jones said. He said they would assess the district’s ability to survive a phase-out of the desegregation funds.

 Jones told them that most observers believe that the key to the ruling would be its view on whether or not student assignment and student racial balance in PCSSD were desegregated.
“What’s the probability for unitary status for other districts to step up and claim schools belonging to Pulaski County?” Tim Clark asked.

Jones said that was a risk.