Saturday, November 20, 2010

SPORTS>>Arkansans, NFL appear a natural fit

By Jason king
Leader sportswriter

The influence of the Natural State on the NFL has been strong as of late.

Most notable is former Razorback and current Oakland Raiders running back Darrin McFadden, who led the league in rushing early this season before falling into a tie for seventh place with the St. Louis Rams’ Steven Jackson with 757 yards.

McFadden has been a strong part of the Raiders’ upsurge that has landed them atop the AFC West standings for the first time since 2003, tied with rival Kansas City at 5-4. McFadden came up with a pair of big, third-down plays to keep the Raiders going on what became their go-ahead drive to beat the Chiefs last week.

McFadden, a product of the central Arkansas area who went to high school at Pulaski Oak Grove, captured the imagination of every football fan in the state a few years ago when he was in serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy and finished second in the running two different times.

McFadden’s old teammate and dormitory buddy Felix Jones has found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum in the first half of the season as part of a Dallas Cowboys team that has been mired in injuries, coaching controversy and ultimately, lots of losing.

We were told to expect the Cowboys to make a Super Bowl run this season, especially with the event itself to be held in team owner and Arkansas native Jerry Jones’ new Taj Mahal of a stadium in Arlington.

But things have not quite worked out that way for “America’s team” with a shoulder injury to franchise quarterback Tony Romo and the recent firing of head coach Wade Phillips after the Cowboys got off to a lackluster 1-7 start.

Fans of Big D got a break Sunday when the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants for the second victory of their tumultuous season. But is it too late for Jones and the Cowboys, who are currently coached by former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, to reach the playoffs?

Jones became the ground-attack catalyst for the Cowboys last season after sustaining a year-ending injury early his rookie season, and is the centerpiece again this season.

But with only 353 rushing yards through nine games and another 258 from veteran Marion Barber, Dallas’ running game looks more like a sputtering, dissipating rain shower than an inline storm.

Conway native and former Hog Payton Hillis is another feel-good Arkansas story this year. Hillis — who began his NFL career in Denver and spent much of his time as a fullback for the Razorbacks blocking for the fleeter McFadden and Jones — leads the Browns in rushing with 726 yards.

Hillis has rushed for eight touchdowns, with a 48-yarder as his longest. But he has been one of the few bright spots for the Browns, who sit third in the AFC North standings with a 3-6 record.

Those are the three biggest notables of close to 50 players in the NFL with some kind of ties to Arkansas. There’s also former Little Rock Parkview Patriot and current Atlanta Falcon defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson and current Chicago Bears defensive back and former Little Rock Fair War Eagle Chris Harris, among many others.

And for those of us in this area, you can’t speak of the NFL without mentioning Jacksonville’s own Clinton McDonald, in his second season as defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals.

McDonald graduated from Jacksonville High School in 2005 and started for the University of Memphis for four years before getting picked up by the Bengals late in the 2009 draft.

McDonald earned his stripes on the Bengals’ practice squad in his first year, finally getting his first game experience two weeks ago against Pittsburgh.

McDonald also played against the Colts on Sunday and recorded his first, career unassisted tackle.

SPORTS>>Panthers end road in defeat by Rebels

Leader sports editor

Cabot was hoping to engineer one more home game when it left for its 7A state playoff game at Forth Smith Southside on Friday.

Instead the Panthers won’t play a regulation game at Panther Stadium until next year.

The Rebels scored three touchdowns in the first half on the way to a 28-7 quarterfinal victory at Johnny Roland Stadium that sent Cabot packing.

Cabot was hoping to win and for a Fayetteville victory at West Memphis to set up a home semifinal, but Cabot’s end of things became moot as Southside, facing the same scenario, rolled to its convincing victory.

Cabot trailed 21-0 at halftime but, before a good-sized and noisy Cabot crowd that made the trip, was threatening to get back into it after Mason James scored on a 24-yard run on a counter play with 4:58 left in the third quarter.

But Bryson Morris dropped Southside’s first punt of the game and the Rebels recovered at the Cabot 21, leading to Julius Jones’ five-hard touchdown run that made it 28-7 and capped the scoring as the game degenerated in a flurry of penalty flags in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers beat Rogers Heritage without five key players who were injured.

They welcomed back running back Spencer Smith and tight end Jesse Roberts on Friday, and running back Jeremy Berry suited up at halftime but didn’t get in. But the extra help wasn’t enough as things took a bad early turn for Cabot.

One of the worst things to happen to Southside was a fumble on the opening kickoff, but the Rebels recovered and quickly went 66 yards in seven plays, scoring on Jones’ 21-yard run he set up with a stutter step at the line of scrimmage before his dash up the middle.

Hunter Whorton completed first-down passes of 18 and 11 yards on the possession and Jones scored with 9:26 left in the first quarter.

Cabot got as far as the Southside 44 before a bad pitch from Morris to James Haley on third and six forced the Panthers to punt. In one of the half’s worst breaks for Cabot, punter Max Carroll took the low snap on one knee and was ruled down at the Panthers 27.

On the next play Whorton kept for the touchdown, staying just in bounds and crossing the pylon to make it 14-0.

Cabot managed a first down on its next drive, but a fumble snap that Morris recovered stalled the drive and Cabot punted, successfully this time.

The Rebel were poised to scored again after driving to the Panthers 8, but Greg Phelps at least temporarily saved the day with an interception that gave Cabot possession at its 1. It was Whorton’s sixth interception of the year.

But Cabot got nowhere and punted again and Southside drove for its third score, overcoming a penalty along the way. Whorton had a 14-yard gain and scored when he rolled right under pressure and kept 12 yards to make it 21-0 with 4:36 left.

Cabot put together its best drive of the half, marching to the Southside 25, but Morris’ pass was tipped and Zach Hood intercepted and, after a block in the back penalty, the Rebels were set up at their 23.

After two rushes by Jones netted 2 yards, Whorton took a knee to keep it 21-0 at halftime.

The Rebels finished the half with 212 yards, 121 on the ground with 103 coming from Jones. Cabot gained just 83 yards in the half.

SPORTS>>Keese unlocks victory as Wildcats move on

Leader sportswriter

Seth Keese made sure Friday’s second round 3A playoff game against Bald Knob was not his last home game as a Harding Academy Wildcat as he led his team to a 41-14 victory.

The senior quarterback/defensive back threw for 308 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another 104 yards and two more scores to help the Wildcats to next week’s quarterfinals in which they will host Rison.

“We knew what to expect; we knew it was going to happen,” Keese said. “We had two weeks to prepare for this game, and the defensive line did a great job of putting pressure on their quarterback.

“As far as offense, our line made some really wide holes for me to run through. When it comes to a great game on both sides it’s not just me, it takes everyone. We all hustled tonight.”

The Bulldogs (9-3) threatened to make a game of it early in the third quarter after falling behind 28-0 in a first half that was all Harding Academy. But Landry Shipman intercepted Bald Knob quarterback Cordell Crisp to set up a 77-yard touchdown pass from Keese to Jay Bona that pushed the score to 35-6.

“We felt like we needed to pressure him,” Harding Academy coach Roddy Mote said of Crisp. “We couldn’t just let him sit back there in the pocket. We mixed it up on him. Sometimes we sent two and dropped nine; other times we’d send seven. The kids played hard and never let up on their intensity all night.”

Crisp, a sophomore, showed flashes of being a solid pocket passer, but also threw four interceptions, two of which were grabbed by Keese.

“It just kills your momentum,” Bulldogs coach Paul Johnston said. “We had a couple of passes we felt like could have turned into big plays for us, but they went the other way. Keese pretty much took over this thing.”

Keese set up the drive that sent the game into the sportsmanship/timing rule with an interception at the Wildcats 24 with 10:43 left to play. He found Corey Guymon on a 57-yard pass play to set up first and goal at the 2, and Ben Lecrone ran it in for the score on the following play to start the clock running almost continuously.

The Wildcats showed balance on their first scoring drive with first-down runs by Keese mixed with a 36-yard pass play to Bona that set Harding Academy up with a first down at the Bald Knob 30-yard line.

Keese found Bona again on the next play for a 10-yard gain before taking it to the 1-yard line on a quarterback draw up the middle.

Keese lost two yards on the next play, but connected with Ben Lecrone for a three-yard touchdown pass with 6:05 left in the first quarter. Josh Spears added the extra point to make it 7-0.

Harding Academy struck much faster on its next drive, as Keese kept for a 42-yard touchdown run on the third play of the drive and successfully threw to Bona for a two-point conversion.

Spears increased the margin to 18-0 with 9:16 left in the first half when he hit a 46-yard field goal.

The Wildcats started the drive at their 37 and advanced into Bulldog territory with a six-yard run by Lecrone followed by two five-yard scrambles by Keese, the first of which was aided by a 15-yard face mask penalty.

That moved Harding Academy to the Bald Knob 30-yard line. The Wildcats appeared to have pushed the ball inside the 20 three plays later when Keese completed a pass to Bona for 22 yards, but a second straight holding call backed the Wildcats to the 28.

Jordan Johnston tackled Keese for a one-yard loss to bring up fourth down and Spears’ kick from the right hash mark took a sharp hook but went just inside the left upright.

The Wildcats stayed with their passing game on the next drive until the final play.

They started after Lecrone returned Bald Knob’s punt to the Bulldog 30. Keese completed a pair of 10-yard passes to Lecrone following a holding call that backed the Wildcats up to the 40, and hit Bona for an 11-yard pickup.

The Bulldogs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct following the play, which set Harding Academy up with a first and goal at the 5.

Keese kept for the five-yard touchdown run up the middle with 3:16 left in the first half to make it 25-0.

Spears struck one more time for the Wildcats on the final play of the half with a 22-yard field that made it 28-0 at halftime.

SPORTS>>Hall halts rally bid as Cabot gets loss

Leader sportswriter

Cabot and host Little Rock Hall both felt the need for speed in their second-round matchup in the Hall Invitational at Cirks Arena Thursday.

The Lady Warriors held off a frantic challenge by Lady Panthers’ leading scorer Melissa Wolff in the second half of their 61-51 victory to advance to tonight’s championship finals against North Little Rock.

Cabot will face Little Rock Parkview in the third-place game today at 4 p.m.

Wolff scored 13 of her 21 points in the second half, as Cabot (1-1) cut a 10-point lead to three with 4:30 left to play, but Hall teammates Tyler Scaife and Indica Austin answered the Lady Panthers’ challenge and pushed the lead to more than 10 in the closing minutes.

The fast pace resulted in an ample number of turnovers by both teams, as the Lady Panthers and Lady Warriors (2-0) each clamped down in the backcourt with press defenses.

Hall committed 18 turnovers to 23 by Cabot.

The Lady Panthers made out slightly better in the transition game, but the Lady Warriors persevered with better shot selection down the stretch, along with a stout, 26-point performance by Scaife to lead all scorers.

Cabot junior post player Laci Boyett made it 45-42 when she stole the ball at half court and drove for a lay-up. Austin came back with a jumper, followed by a score by Scaife with 3:40 left that pushed Hall’s lead to 49-42.

The Lady Panthers appeared to have caught a break when Damonique Miller, Hall’s biggest outside shooting threat, committed her fifth foul on Jaylin Bridges, who made both free throws.

Austin traveled to give the ball back to Cabot, which had a chance to pull within one possession.

But Cabot couldn’t score, and Scaife made a basket from the lane to extend the lead to 51-44.

Cabot senior point guard Kaki Thomas led in assists most of the night before hitting a three-pointer that made it 51-47 with 2:21 left for half of her six points. Thomas finished with five assists.

But it was all Hall from there. Scaife hit a pair of free throws, followed by two successful trips to the free-throw line by Austin for a 57-47 Hall lead.

Hall also used a big run early in the first half to seize momentum. Cabot took a 5-2 lead with some help from a technical foul against the Lady Warriors when 6-3 post player Katelyn Weber entered the game despite not being listed in the official scorebook.

Sophomore Elliot Taylor made one of the technical free throws, and Bridges made a three-point basket when she grabbed a long offensive rebound and put it back up.

The Lady Warriors came back with a pair of three-pointers by Jasmine Ford and two transition baskets by Scaife, followed by a free throw by Tierra Coffey as Hall overcame a 7-2 Cabot lead to go in front 13-7.

Taylor was not able to recreate the 20-point performance she had against Lonoke in the opener on Monday. Hall was aggressive defensively in the lane, limiting her to seven points, five of which came from the free-throw line.

But Taylor shined with a game-high nine rebounds.

Bridges, Thomas and Boyett all finished with six points for the Lady Panthers. Junior post player Sydney Wacker added six points and five rebounds.

SPORTS>>Pine Bluff tops Jacksonville

By Michael murphy
Special to The Leader

Pine Bluff advanced to the semifinals of the Class 6A playoffs with a 30-6 victory over visiting Jacksonville at Jordan Stadium on Friday.

After a close first quarter of play, Pine Bluff’s defense came to life, allowing the Red Devils just 29 yards in the remaining three quarters and getting seven sacks.

“They made plays and we didn’t,” Jacksonville coach Rick Russell said. “The kids played as hard as they could play and we’re proud of them. Pine Bluff is a good football team and we wish them well the rest of the way.”

Senior defensive linemen Melvin Johnson and Jeremy Pulliam each recorded two sacks. Bryan Terry had a sack and a forced fumble, and sophomore Kelvin Seargent added yet another sack.

“We had a great mental week at practice defensively and a great bye-week practice defensively,” Pine Bluff coach Bobby Bolding said. “I fully expected to get what we got.”

The Zebras defense made things difficult for the Red Devils after forcing running back Antwone Mosby out of the game with a knee injury in the second quarter. Quarterback Logan Perry couldn’t find his rythm, finishing the game 2 for 9, but he did have a 59-yard touchdown pass to D’Vone McClure with 6:25 remaining in the first quarter for Jacksonville’s only touchdown.

The Pine Bluff secondary gave an impressive performance as junior safety Jared Turner deflected several passes for the Zebras.

“They played great,” Bolding said. “Big hits, and we got a great pass rush, I was really pleased with our defense. They won the game tonight.

Jawahn Hunt, who broke the 2,000-yard rushing mark with Friday’s performance, gave Pine Bluff an early lead, breaking a 46-yard touchdown run with 9:29 remaining in the opening quarter. Hunt finished the game with 185 yards on 21 carries.

“He had a great game, got some good blocking,” Bolding said. “He runs the ball hard and he’s got great speed obviously.”

However Hunt wasn’t the only Pine Bluff back to get in on the action as sophomore Walter Ashley and junior Jalen Dabner both had rushing touchdowns for the Zebras. The two combined for 76 yards on the ground in relief of Hunt.

Ashley was also on the receiving end of quarterback Jordan Humphrey’s 47-yard touchdown pass which gave Pine Bluff a 30-6 lead with 10:21 remaining in the game.

“Walter had a good game,” Bolding said. “He was sick Wednesday and wasn’t able to practice, but he came back and had a good game.”

Humphrey finished the game 4 of 6 for 87 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted by Jacksonville’s Kenny Cummings on a deep pass intended for senior Justin Bishop in the second quarter.

Senior tight end David Smith had two key receptions for the Zebras for 34 yards. His first catch went for 19 yards on a third-and-18 play.

Smith also hauled in a 15-yard reception on second and 19 which set up Dabner’s eight-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Although the Zebras rushed for nearly 300 yards, the passing attack was efficient when Pine Bluff went to the air.

“You just kind of go to sleep when you watch us play,” Bolding said. “It’s what we do. We want you to go to sleep.”


Leader sports editor

Did anyone realize history was being made?

Yes, a few people did.

But it was more fun just playing basketball.

Lighthouse Charter School tipped off its first, sanctioned basketball season with seventh-grade girls and boys games against Jacksonville at Jacksonville Middle School on Thursday.

The girls team played a thriller, losing 17-14 to the Lady Red Devils while the boys took it on the chin, falling behind 26-3 at halftime on the way to a final score somewhere in the neighborhood of 63-14, to the best of coach Brad Burl’s recollection.

“When we get beat like that I tend to forget them quick,” said Burl, who coaches the boys and girls teams.

No matter. While the girls drew several shrieks of pleasure and support in their nail-biting loss, the parents and teachers who made up the fan base applauded both squads like champions after the final buzzers sounded.

“It was very exciting and I think it’s important for the kids to see us here and see our support,” teacher Melonie Burton said. “If they see us support them here, then they’ll be more willing to work for us in our classrooms.”

The teachers said it was no problem finding players — announcing the sign-up was all that was needed — though there was some friendly dispute over expectations.

“I was surprised,” Burton said. “I was really proud of my girls; they showed up and showed out today.”

“I wasn’t very surprised,” Burton’s fellow teacher Christy Head said. “I know some of those girls.”

For the record, Diamond McGloan scored the first points in the girls program’s history while Giovanni Castiallano scored first for the boys.

But after a taste of real, competitive action, the players were more concerned about getting back into the gym and into their next game, whenever it is.

Lighthouse opened in August 2009 and played intramural sports last year. The Arkansas Activities Association didn’t approve the school for interscholastic competition until September, leaving little time to put together a schedule.

Burl is still hustling to find opponents and hopes to have 7-8 games this first season, including another against Jacksonville. With that in mind he was grateful to Jacksonville for playing host Thursday.

“I just appreciate this opportunity so much,” Burl said, after members of the Jacksonville coaching staff congratulated him for his players’ scrappy effort. “Because I did reach out to some other schools and their schedules were already full. But they made the opportunity for us to come and have a chance to do something positive.”

Lighthouse, founded as an alternative to some of the schools in the sometimes troubled Pulaski County Special School District, is located at 251 N. First Street in Jacksonville. Current enrollment is 394 in grades kindergarten through seventh, with a waiting list that is almost double that number.

“It just gave a whole different opportunity for all my kids,” said Karen Gabriel, a mother of five, after watching her daughter Jonae Guy-Gabriel play in the girls game. “I think they did pretty good, they kind of held their own, so hopefully they’ll improve and get better.”

The school’s blueprint is to add a grade, and hopefully a level of sports, each year, so that one day there will be a senior high and a varsity athletic program. Lighthouse also offers soccer, swimming, cheerleading/dance and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is planning to run a track and field program in the spring.

The athletic program is so young Lighthouse has yet to settle on a mascot, and is planning a student-body vote. The school has yet to build a home gym and practices twice a week at First United Methodist Church in Jacksonville and spends the rest of its time on a makeshift court in the school’s multi-purpose room and on the playground.

“We’re going to take a lot from this first game and we’re just going to grow and we’re going to build,” Burl said.

Burl, who gave his age as “over 30”, is a former North Little Rock basketball and football player who also played football at Arkansas Tech, where he received his degrees in education and graphic design.

He earned his master’s in education administration and supervision at UALR and plans to earn his specialist degree and his doctorate.

Though he is coaching two start-up basketball programs at Lighthouse, those are just the beginning of Burl’s responsibilities. He is also an administrator, art teacher, physical education instructor and the school’s director of culture.

“If the children see me still trying to work and study hard, I hope that inspires them to work and study hard,” Burl said.

Lighthouse is somewhat unique in that its core curriculum is art-infused.

Before the school year is out, each student is required to take part in some sort of artistic endeavor — a play, an art show, a reading — and the idea is if students can visualize and build a creative project it will be more conducive toward learning grammar, math or hard sciences.

“It’s a new concept,” Head said. “You take children who are not interested in education and you give them an art project or a music assignment that they are interested in and they’re more willing to do the assignment and are more engaged in learning because of the art curriculum.”

So how does basketball fit into the art picture?

The program may be too young for Burl to be talking about transition offenses and man-to-man defenses. But there are some important fundamentals to be learned. Burl quickly ticked off the advantages, from helping kids build self-esteem and learn hard life lessons like perseverance, to building time management skills and developing good health.

“But I always want to stress to the children first, the main goal is education,” Burl said.

“You could be hurt, it could be your last day of playing sports today. But your mind, and your education and your book smarts are what are going to carry you.”

Somewhere down the line, if the basketball program matches the projected growth of the school, there will be bigger crowds, taller players, deeper rosters, victories and maybe even a state championship or two.

Those things may be years away, but now, at least, Lighthouse basketball has driven some of the shadows from its future.

“For a lot of the children it was the first time playing and they responded very, very, very well,” Burl said. “All I can do is brag on them.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Uphill climb for road plan

The state Highway and Transportation Department picked a fine time to get into a financial bind, in the dismal train of the worst economic decline in 70 years, but then hasn’t it nearly always been in a financial bind? 

Over the next decade, the agency says, it must have $19.1 billion to maintain the 15,000 miles of state highways and meet the growing traffic needs for wider and better highways and bridges, but it can expect to get only $4.1 billion from its existing tax sources.  

You can dismiss that $19.1 billion estimate as pie in the sky. It’s not as desperate as that. The Highway Commission for half a century has produced bloated estimates of what it will take to maintain and build good roads and bridges. It would like to build a super highway system. We also would like to have a super public school system, a first-rate system of higher education, top-drawer health insurance and excellent corrections, but people have concluded that we can’t afford any of those things. 

But the highway program is indeed in a jam, and we are not so poor that we cannot take a few steps that will keep the pace of improvements. Automobile fuel economies have made the current excise tax on motor fuels a dwindling source of revenue, and rising oil and construction prices send roadbuilding costs perpetually in the opposition direction. So the Blue Ribbon Committee on Highway Finance, which was created by the legislature in 2007, has produced a package of financing proposals, just in time to arrive dead on arrival at the 88th General Assembly. 

We may be too pessimistic, but three of the committee’s four major proposals require tax increases, and a high quotient of the 135 lawmakers will arrive at the Capitol in January firmly committed to vote forever against any tax of any size for any purpose. It is a pledge that Republicans nationwide made, a key part of their strategy to take over Congress, statehouses and legislatures. It is hard to imagine a significant tax measure making it through the legislature in 2011, even if Gov. Beebe puts his magic hands on it. 

If the economy picks up steam next year—there are modestly encouraging signs—perhaps something might be done later in the biennium, a special legislative session in the fall or winter that could consider road taxes in a more hospitable climate. 

A couple of the committee’s ideas hold more promise than the others. One is surely dead, the transfer of a sizable part of the state’s sales taxes from the general fund to highways. The Highway Department has wanted for 40 years to reap the sales-tax revenues on vehicles and automotive supplies and services, which support the schools and other general-revenue programs. Robbing education to pay for highways is logically and politically impermissible. Beebe says it will not happen on his watch, and it shouldn’t. 

The committee suggests indexing motor-fuel taxes, currently 21.5 cents a gallon for gasoline and 22.5 cents for diesel, to inflation in the construction industry. The tax would go up every year automatically as petroleum prices and other highway-building costs rose. That is constitutionally dubious—the legislature cannot delegate its taxing power to any other entity—and taxpayers will not stand for an open-ended tax. They should forget that option. 

The committee recommends that the legislature refer a highway bond issue to the voters in 2012. 

The bonds would be backed by a 10-year sales tax of one-half of one percent. Presumably, both the bonds and the tax would be subject to voter approval, unlike Gov. Mike Huckabee’s tax-and-bond scheme in 1998. Voters approved a big bond issue to rebuild interstate highways, but the ballot made no mention of taxes. Huckabee and the legislature had already approved the tax that would pay off the bonds. 

Finally, the blue-ribbon men proposed an excise tax on gasoline and diesel at the wholesale level. 

It is the best and most politically feasible idea of the package. It would be a new tax, one that was not collected in 1934, so the legislature could enact it with a simple majority, not the extraordinary majority required of most taxes. If it was an ad-valorem tax, based upon the wholesale price, it would be more elastic than the current gallonage tax and provide a source of revenue that rose with costs. It should, in fact, replace the current tax and not be a supplement. 

We have one quaint idea of our own. The legislature should raise the severance tax on natural gas, which was enacted two years ago and dedicated to highways, streets and roads. The act, which was written by lawyers for gas producers, exempts most of Arkansas’ growing gas production from the 5 percent tax on the wellhead price and instead taxes it at 1.5 percent or even lower. The tax could be raised to 2.6 percent by a simple majority of the legislature. It could not be passed on to households or business consumers of gas. And it would be a substantial help to the highway program.

There will have to be a more propitious moment than January 2011 for any of these ideas to fly, but we commend those to the legislature and the governor for that moment, whenever it comes.

TOP STORY > >City budget would be less in 2011

By rick kron
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville’s proposed 2011 budget is about $100,000 less than this year’s budget but still gives employees a small raise and maintains services, even though the city will have to take a half-million dollars out of its reserves to do it.

“We have nickel and dimed this budget to death,” Finance Director Paul Mushrush said at a half-attended city council meeting Thursday night.

The mayor, along with Jim Durham, director of administration, and Jay Whisker, city engineer, were in Dallas trying to woo business developers to Jacksonville.

Aldermen Kenny Elliott, Bill Howard and John Ferrell were also out.

Mushrush told the council that revenues for 2011 are expected to come in at $18.4 million, while expenditures are expected to reach $18.9 million, leaving a $504,341 shortfall which the city will cover with reserves.

The city will give its employees a flat $500 raise instead of a percentage raise as it has in the past. City council members will not receive a raise.

Mushrush said all city services will stay at their current levels, but added that something needs to be done with sanitation.  He explained that if the city continues without a rate increase or a deduction in garbage and trash services, the department will lose about $1 million over the next five years. The department is already running a deficit of more than $400,000.

The department has not raised its rates in almost a decade and the council formed a committee Thursday to look at what can be done to get the sanitation department back to a break-even point. It might mean a rate increase, a drop in services or a combination. 

Alderman Reedie Ray will head the committee which also includes aldermen Terry Sansing, Bob Stroud, Kevin McCleary and Bill Howard.

“We are the only city that I know of that picks up trash twice a week,” Sansing said at the meeting, implying that he might be in favor of cutting back to once a week.

Part of the budget problems come from the voters rejecting annexation, which would have infused about $1.9 million annually into the city coffers.

Fletcher said shortly after the vote that the people had spoken and that the city will have to make adjustments.

Nearly 67 percent of the expected revenue will come via sales taxes, followed by intergovernmental transfers at 7.8 percent, operating transfers at 6.4 percent and utility franchise fees at 5.9 percent.

The bulk of expenditures will be for public safety at 64 percent of the total budget, followed by public works at 22 percent, general government at 11 percent and judicial at 3 percent.

In other council business:

The council approved the first reading of an ordinance placing a total of $70,895.29 in liens on a total of 139 properties throughout the city. The liens are being placed against the properties because the city had to either cut the grass, clear the properties or perform some other service after the owners would not.

The ordinance must be read and approved two more times before it becomes law and the liens are placed on the properties. The council will call a special meeting before the end of the month to take the other two votes on the ordinance.

The liens range from a low of $37.39 owed by Shayla Johnson of 133 Lonsdale Circle to $10,295.57 owed by Wyman Gaye of 107 and 109 Smart St. Some property owners will have multiple liens against them such as Duane Smith, who owns numerous properties on Jane Drive, will have four liens against him and so will Roy Martin, who owns property on Flight Court.

In his monthly report to the council, Police Chief Gary Sipes said his department responded to 4,209 complaint calls in October.

The police arrested 334 adults and 57 juveniles during the month.

The chief reported that the city had no homicides, five reported rapes or sexual assaults, four robberies, 11 felony assaults, 21 burglaries, 76 thefts, six vehicle thefts and no arsons during October.

Fire Chief John Vanderhoof, in his monthly report, said his department responded to 243 rescue calls, 85 still alarms, 23 general alarms and had 266 ambulance runs.

The chief estimated fire loss to the city for October at $1,000 and fire savings, based on quick responses, at $399,000.

Alderman Marshall Smith, who served as mayor at the council meeting, reminded those attending that city offices would be closed Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving. 

TOP STORY > >Road-tax plan needs traction

Leader senior staff writer

A special committee that has been studying ways to pay for highway improvements hopes it can convince state officials to raise taxes, although that might be difficult to achieve.

Among its recommendations: Index state gas and diesel excise taxes to the cost of road construction, add a wholesale fuel-sales tax and divert sales tax revenues from the sale of vehicles, batteries, auto parts and similar highway-user items from the state’s general fund—where they have traditionally gone—and into a new highway trust fund.

Those are three of the main changes the state’s Blue Ribbon Highway Finance Committee will recommend in its Dec. 1 report to Gov. Mike Beebe, the state General Assem-bly and other interested parties, according to state Sen. John Paul Capps, committee co-chairman.

The committee was charged with finding permanent, sufficient and flexible financing to keep the state’s aging road system in good repair.

Most states already dedicate sales tax from vehicle sales and vehicle-related sales to their highways, but in Arkansas, where state revenues have been hard to come by, those taxes generate about $400 million a year to help fund schools, prisons, Medicare and Medicaid, according to Jim McKenzie, executive director of Metroplan and a member of the committee.

Diversion of the vehicle associated sales tax revenues would not begin until general revenues exceed the $2.2 billion mark set in 2007, according to Capps, and then would be phased in over a decade.

Currently, the state Highway and Transportation Department projects that it needs $19 billion over the next decade just to maintain the highways it has, but expects only about $4 billion in revenues.

A new wholesale-fuel tax would be phased in over six years, McKenzie said.

The recommendation will include a constitutional amendment for a half-cent general sales tax to fund bond issues, which would allow the department to undertake major new highway construction, McKenzie said. He added that the highway- construction lobby supports that idea.

The problem in financing highway and road construction and maintenance is that Arkansas has the 12th largest state highway system in the nation and the 10th largest county system, but is only 36th in population and 47th in percapita income.

Currently, the state spends about $400 million a year to maintain highways, but to provide the same level of maintenance in 2020 will cost an additional $150 million a year.

To completely reserve the system and meet urban congestion problems would cost $10.9 billion over 10 years, of which $800 million a year would need to be new revenues.

If the state implemented all the revenue-increasing measures recommended, it would have barely enough to begin that level of maintenance, McKenzie said.

To add significant new capacity to the state highway system would cost yet another $700 million a year.

The committee asked the governor and legislature to review or undertake new studies.

What would it cost to reduce the size of the state highway system by turning roads such as Broadway over to the counties after bringing them up to snuff?

Also, there needs to be a new federal study evaluating the cost to state roads of the heavy trucks. That could lead to increases in licenses and fees on those trucks to more fairly pay for the damage they do.

TOP STORY > >PCSSD defends China trip

By john hofheimer
Leader senior staff writer

Superintendent Charles Hopson is leading a delegation of eight from the Pulaski County Special School District on a sponsored, weeklong trip to China, the first steps toward a program to teach Mandarin Chinese to some district students.

Detractors brought word of the China trip to the public before the district could craft its announcement, according to PCSSD spokesman Deb Roush, claiming that it would be costly to the district and was not a proper use of district resources.

“We’re real excited about this,”Roush said. “It’s a good thing.”

The program brings Ameri-can school officials to China to see the culture and the education system there, and then helps match them up with Chinese teachers.

Currently, nine Arkansas school districts have Chinese teachers teaching Mandarin to students in their districts.

A letter, purportedly from an unnamed “former administrator” to the head of the state Legislative Audit, claims PCSSD could spend the money better, maybe for Spanish classes, or could find a Chinese teacher without leaving the state. The author says he (or she) is “furious.”

A link to the letter was published by Dawn Jackson on her SavePCSSD.Org website, which has been closely associated with the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

Of the skepticism, Hopson said, “I think because of the experiences of the past, people are just suspicious, and they probably have a right to be. As an instructional leader, it’s part of trying to put the district at an advantage.

“I’m moving very, very fast and there are a lot of things—strategic planning—a lot happening at the same time. I didn’t anticipate that this would rise to the surface as a negative thing, but a celebration.”

Board president Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville originally ex-pressed some skepticism, but now calls the program “wonderful.”

“If we’re going to be business partners with China in the global economy, this is a pretty positive thing.”

Vasquez said communications could have been better. He hadn’t heard of the trip before this week, even though Hopson and the others leave Dec. 2, and even though the board appropriated about $3,423 for the district’s share of the eight plane tickets.

“This is good for the district, good for the state and good for our children,” said Vasquez. 

“The expense is minimal.”

He said Riceland hires people who can speak Chinese to help them open up markets in China.

Tim Clark, who was board president at the time that ar-rangements for the trip were made, will be among the eight, but he has paid for his own plane ticket, according to Roush.

“It is part of a partnership between the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, working through the Confucius Institute at the University of Central Arkansas in collaboration with the Arkansas Department of Education,” Roush said.

“Our group is going as part of an American delegation of Arkansas educators from across the state. The program is called Teach Chinese in Arkansas, and the goal is to help schools in our state develop Chinese language programs as part of their curriculum,” she added.

Other Arkansas school districts going on the trip are Beebe, Wynne, Lincoln and Hot Springs, according to Jingjing Li, deputy director of the UCA Confucius Institute.

Arkansas school districts already involved in the three-year-old program are Hot Springs, North Little Rock, Cross County, Harrisburg, Batesville, Conway, Waldron and Wynne and based in Farmington, the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative, she said.

The Hanban, which is a Chinese governmental organization under which the Confucius Institute operates, pays each of the teachers $12,000 a year, with the individual district picking up the rest of the teacher’s salary and benefits, according to Li.

Currently, 11 teachers from China are teaching Chinese language courses to about 1,000 students in nine Arkansas school districts, Li said.

The Confucius Institute has programs in more than 60 countries and dozens of school districts in the United States. Roush said the district expects to incorporate Chinese in the Robinson feeder-pattern schools and at the new high school in Maumelle.

“We are also looking to expand the program in the College Station feeder pattern,” she said.

Those making the trip, in addition to Hopson and Clark, are College Station principal Lisa Watson, Maumelle principal Joy Plants, Robinson High School principal Yoluandra Williams, Robinson Middle School principal Cherrie Walker and Bruce Bryant, who oversees curriculum for the district.

Crystal Hills Elementary teacher Cindy Casto, who is of Chinese heritage and helped organize the trip, will travel as a translator, Roush said.

Why is PCSSD interested in providing Chinese language classes?

“Chinese is the most widely spoken first language, spoken by 1.3 billion people. More than 200 million Chinese school children are studying English, but only 50,000 students in the U.S. are studying Chinese,” Roush said. “This will give PCSSD students the edge.”

Hopson’s goal in building partnerships with the groups involved in the trip “is to help us incorporate Chinese into our curriculum and is part of his plan to help PCSSD become a world-class district offering a global standard of excellence,” she said.

“We have the opportunity to make our district better,” Hopson said, “to bring to a global standard and to give our students access another global economic language.

“It’s exciting that we are able to bring enrichment opportunities to the district,” he said. 

“Conway is ahead of us, they started a year or two ago. Arkansas is late to the process.”

The delegation will arrive in Beijing, where they will attend an official welcoming event and tour the city for a few days. Members will then visit one of several host provinces, where they will participate in educational activities, visit schools and sightsee “to experience the diversity of the landscape and culture.”

The Confucius Institute says the days will be long and rigorous—quite demanding, and that delegates are expected to attend all activities and events.

The institute says the trip will help educate the educators about Chinese language, culture, and society with workshops and school visits.

The activities and itinerary are specially tailored to the needs of schools and districts looking for resources to start offering Chinese language and/or culture courses.

In addition to paying half of the airfare, the institute will pay for hotel accommodations, meals and local transportation.

The Arkansas Department of Education has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Confucius Institute and will send a representative to interview prospective Chinese teachers.

Some of the programs have been “wildly successful,” according to Education Department spokesman Julie Thompson. In one case, the Chinese teacher had trouble adjusting to the culture.

“It is beneficial to the students,” she said. “The program is good.”

Although the prospective teachers have master’s degrees in teaching Chinese as a second language, the state will help them get certified for alternative teaching certification, Thompson said.

TOP STORY > >Mayor runoffs down to wire

By joan mccoy
Leader staff writer

With only three days left before the runoff election, candidates in Cabot and Sherwood are working hard to get voters back to the polls.

Bill Cypert is in a runoff for mayor against former Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh.

In Sherwood, it’s Mayor Virginia Hillman trying to get a full four years  as the city’s chief, taking on 12-year city council veteran Alderman Sheila Sulcer.

Cypert says he is taking heat for talking about the city’s financial problems when Stumbaugh was in office as well as the poor relationship the former mayor had with many on the city council, in the business community and county and state officials.
Stumbaugh admitted vaguely to problems with his administration during a candidates forum last month, saying his confidence in some of his department heads may have been misplaced. But he has countered Cypert’s denunciation of his management skills with phone calls to voters saying he is running a clean campaign.

Cypert maintains that his conscience is clear. It would have been morally wrong not to remind voters that between 2003, and 2006, when Stumbaugh was mayor, the news accounts from Cabot were often about lawsuits against the city and dissention between the m
ayor and council members and the mayor and the Cabot Chamber of Commerce.
“We don’t need four more years of turmoil,” Cypert said.

Both candidates say they will focus on problems with traffic and drainage if elected. Stumbaugh, a former Little Rock police officer, says public safety also is a major concern.

Cypert says as the city grows, the fire and police departments will also need to grow, but the immediate issue is economic development. The population of the city has doubled over the past two decades, but there is no strategy for managing the growth or a plan for economic development. Developing a plan together with teamwork with the business community and county, state and national leaders is the key to attracting business and industry, he said.

Hillman is proud of her record as mayor since  winning a special election  three years ago. 

Hillman points out that in her tenure as mayor the city welcomed in Gravel Ridge, went to automated trash pickup and increased uniformed services.

She plans to reinstate the city’s street-overlay program and improve the parks system if re-elected.

Sulcer says she takes to heart the  concerns and values of all residents of Sherwood and she is pledging to control spending and not waste tax dollars. She has accused Hillman of fiscal irresponsibility.

Hillman has fired back that she has spent nothing that the council hasn’t approved.

Sulcer says she will also maintain an open-door policy and form a task force to help with city and ward problems.

Angie Armstrong Hoschouer, in a runoff against Richard Cannon for the Ward 3, Position 1 seat on the Cabot City Council, said Friday that she has not campaigned for more than a week. Her father, Alderman Tom Armstrong, who held that position, died Sunday after battling cancer for more than two years.

“Monday and Tuesday, I’ll set my emotions aside and I’ll be out there,” Hoschouer said.

Her message to voters is much like Cypert’s. Cabot is going to grow, she said. Her goal is to help it grow in the right direction through planning for traffic and parks and building relationships with county, state and national leaders.

Contacted late Friday, Can-non said his campaign is going well.

“I want to represent all the people. That’s my whole thing,” Cannon said. “I won’t represent any special interests. I just want to express the concerns of all the people to the board.”