Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TOP STORY > >PCSSD determined to fix schools

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville elementary and middle-school students could be attending classes in new, conjoined buildings at the site of the existing middle school by 2013, part of an ambitious $181.5 million district-wide construction, closure and consolidation plan that would leave one high school in the city.

Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Charles Hopson and Derek Scott, the district’s executive director of operations, asked the board first in a Monday night workshop and then in Tuesday’s school board meeting for permission to explore the controversial plan in meetings with school patrons across the district.

Scott, a recently retired Air Force colonel, is a civil engineer who oversaw facilities for the Air Force for 18 years. He drew up the plan at Hopson’s request.

The district has no money to build new schools and will barely break even this year, according to Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver. So the three options are to save enough to pay off building bonds, ask voters to raise taxes or the status quo, in which the district struggles with old schools, continues to lose students and eventually is insolvent.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Hopson. “If we do nothing, within years we will be looking at fiscal insolvency. We have too many buildings open. We can’t afford to keep them open. I want to see new facilities built.

“My charge was to deal with facilities inequities. We have schools infested with rats and roaches,” he said.

Hopson said he is not in a popularity contest and not afraid to stir up controversy while trying to fix problems that should have been addressed over the decades.

The average PCSSD school building is 41 years old and in deplorable condition, Hopson said. The students and the patrons deserve better, but there is no money to build new schools.

Scott says the savings in the draft plan he is sharing with the board and the public achieved from consolidating schools would be enough to finance most of the $181.5 million proposed building program.

The savings at closed schools come from not paying utilities or insurance, not having to do maintenance on obsolete schools, running fewer kitchens and libraries and not having maintenance staffs at closed schools.

The draft Vision 2020 Facilities Plan has three main tracks: one to deal with Jacksonville and north Pulaski County; one to deal with the Robinson school area and one to deal with southeast Pulaski County.

Here’s the draft proposal—the point of departure for trying to consolidate some schools and build some new ones—for the Jacksonville-north Pulaski County schools.

North Pulaski High School would serve all area ninth and 10th-grade students, while Jacksonville High School would serve all the juniors and seniors.

Jacksonville Middle School students would be reassigned to Sylvan Hills Middle School and Northwood Middle School and the Jacksonville Middle School building would be demolished.

The Star Academy would be moved. Tolleson Elementary would be closed, its students would be reassigned to Arnold Drive Elementary and Cato Elementary schools.

Jacksonville Elementary School would be closed and the students moved to adjacent elementary schools, and the Adkins pre-kindergarten school would be closed and pre-K moved to another school.

Those closures alone are estimated to save $3 million a year—money available to demolish the existing Jacksonville Middle School and replace it for an estimated $60 million with a new kitchen and administration complex with a new elementary school attached on one side, and a new middle school attached on the other.

Then, the Jackson-ville-area middle school students would be assigned to the new school instead of Sylvan Hills and Northwood, which would be converted to an elementary school.

Also, students from the nearby elementary school zones would go to the new elementary and the old elementary schools would be closed.

Also, Jacksonville High School would be partially replaced with a new $45 million building. North Pulaski High School would be closed and all area district students would be moved to the new Jacksonville High School.

A new Arnold Drive Elementary is not in this plan, but Scott met last week with the deputy director for family affairs from the Defense Department, which is choosing from 189 schools serving military dependants, which it will build new schools for.

Should Jacksonville succeed in its efforts to form a stand-alone school district, it could be expected to pick up the debt service for the new buildings, Scott said.

Currently, Sherwood, which will open the new Sylvan Hills Middle School next fall, is not on the plan, but Scott said he hoped to make repairs where needed in that area.

The Robinson area plan would close Robinson High School, moving the students to the new Maumelle High School, saving $1.1 million a year in the process. It would then convert the high school building to a kindergarten through eighth-grade facility at a cost of $10 million.

The Southeast Pulaski County plan calls for the eventual construction of a $19 million elementary school for the fewer than 600 students attending Harris, Scott and College Station elementary schools combined. One way would be to first close College Station and move the students to Scott and Harris.

Board member Gwen Williams wasted no time in telling Scott and Hopson that she would work against their plan to close Harris, Scott and College Station elementary schools and bring them together under one new roof.

Every time the district wants to close schools, it starts with Harris, the historic black school that is the center of the McAlmont community in Williams’ district, she said.

Since 1994, PCSSD enrollment has dropped from about 20,500 students to fewer than 17,000 students, yet it operates more schools, Scott said. “That’s a losing proposition. You don’t leave excellence to chance.”

The district has lost about $24 million in minimum state foundation aid, based on enrollment losses.

Scott said he had looked at enrollment figures for the district and enrollment has increased at new schools and decreased at old schools. It costs the district about $6,000 a year in state aid for every student it loses.