Friday, January 28, 2011

EDITORIAL >‘Hail Mary’ school plan

The Pulaski County Special School District says it has heard the complaints about rundown schools in Jacksonville and could build new schools as early as this summer. PCSSD officials told patrons this week the district will probably replace Arnold Drive, Tolleson and Jacksonville elementary schools and Jacksonville Middle School. The new schools could open in the fall of 2012.

Plans call for replacing Arnold Drive and Tolleson with a school on the air base periphery at Harris Road, where LRAFB officials have offered to make 20 acres available for a combined elementary school.

The district will also build a new Jacksonville Middle School with an administration and kitchen core at the site of the current school. Middle school students would move next door to the old girls middle school during construction.

Derek Scott, executive director of operations for the district and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, told parents this week, “We are trying to throw a Hail Mary pass to get (planning and design) done this summer and move in by August of 2012.”

“As long as Jacksonville is in PCSSD, we should be doing everything we can to provide quality facilities,” Scott added.

“There’s been no vote (on the proposals),” cautioned school board president Bill Vasquez, “but the sense of the board is to repair and replace buildings as fast as we can,” he said.

The district is finally listening to patrons and community leaders for a number of reasons: District officials are hoping to head off a move to separate Jacksonville and north Pulaski County from PCSSD. The existence of new schools could delay or complicate that separation and would require Jacksonville to assume the debt obligations for the new schools.

The district is also getting more competition from Lighthouse Academy charter schools, which are expanding to the air base with a middle school and will add a high school at the North First Street campus in Jacksonville.

Superintendent Charles Hopson will present a building plan to the board at the Feb. 8 meeting, in time to move a building program forward this summer. PCSSD officials hope to get the first round of construction bonds by cutting expenses, including the number of principals and central-office staff. Every $1 million saved can secure about $15 million in bonded construction debt.

Hopson said any reduction in support or teaching staff would be handled through seniority, as laid out in the union contracts.

The Arnold Drive-Tolleson replacement means the district will not add on to Jacksonville High School, where North Pulaski High students would have been reassigned. It appears they will stay at NPHS.

The base has also offered 77 acres for development for a school or schools near Paradise Park, but that land still hasn’t been cleared of the old houses that will come down as new housing is completed. If the district doesn’t jump at the chance of accepting the gift, Lighthouse Academy might go for it and build more schools there.

Two more community meetings will be held, one hosted by school board president Bill Vasquez at 6 p.m. Monday at Jacksonville High School auditorium, the other hosted by Tom Stuthard at 6 p.m. Thursday at North Pulaski High School.

All interested parties should attend.