Wednesday, February 09, 2011

TOP STORY >> District planning to build schools

Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District Board has approved Superintendent Charles Hopson’s recommendation to build three new Jacksonville-area schools — including an elementary school at the air base and a new middle school — and to completely remodel four other schools in other parts of the district, a building project that will cost an estimated $104 million.

The board Tuesday unanimously appropriated $1.5 million toward the design of the schools, without commiting the estimated $8 million needed to secure the sale of $104 million in bonds. Nor did it actually authorize the construction and remodeling in question.

The board is expected to consider those issues along with its 2011-2012 budget at the April meeting. The state Board of Education and perhaps the courts and Joshua and Knight intervenors may weigh in on the proposal, but other than combining two schools, nothing in the plan would seem to affect racial balance or diversity.

Demolition and construction could begin this summer.

“We’re wholeheartedly in favor of the Vision 2020 plan,” Daniel Gray said Tuesday. Gray is president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association and chairman of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce education committee.

“This is the best opportunity for students of Jacksonville and the community to see improvements immediately,” Gray said. “I look forward to working this stuff through and stressing all facilities needs in Jacksonville.”

Gray said he was “genuinely impressed with (Operations Chief Derek) Scott’s and Hop-son’s efforts and sincerity, putting needs of students first. I applaud them.”

Board president Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville had proposed and promoted a more comprehensive plan that included consolidating the two area high schools and having only one middle school in the area. He dropped that idea and voted with the board.

The tentative plan would build a new elementary school on 20 acres offered by Little Rock Air Force Base and when completed, elementary school children in the Arnold Drive and Tolleson attendance zones would be assigned there, according to Scott.

Jacksonville Middle School students would continue to attend classes in their current building, while the adjacent Jacksonville Middle School North—the former girls middle school—would be demolished and replaced with a new Jacksonville middle school. If it’s possible, the plan calls also for building a new elementary school between Main Street and the new middle school to replace the existing Jacksonville Elementary School.

Scott said there was some question about whether there was room to safely construct both the elementary and middle schools, which would flank an administration, kitchen and mechanicals module while students continued attending classes next door.

The timeline called for approval Tuesday night, budget approval in April, state approval in May or June, bond purchase and design in July, demolition in July or August, followed by groundbreaking this fall or winter and estimated completion in summer 2013.

The proposal submitted Tues-day night was arrived at after 10 community-facilities meetings conducted by the administration and various school board members since school reconvened in January.

Scott attended all the meetings and cobbled together the first phase of a plan that was changed in many ways from the original proposal after community members weighed in.

Three meetings were held in Jacksonville, one at North Pulaski High School, three at Robinson High School and one each at College Station, Harris and Daisy Bates elementary schools.

Elsewhere, the proposal would completely renovate—to the point of looking new—Robinson Middle School and also Harris, Scott and Daisy Bates elementary schools.

Hopson and Scott originally proposed consolidating those three elementary schools and busing Robinson students to Maumelle, but their proposal changed after hearing from passionate patrons in those attendance zones, who with their board members, fought that proposal.

North Pulaski High School patrons oppose consolidating their high school with Jacksonville High School, even in a new building.

They—and others throughout the district—spoke against busing students to other schools while new schools were built, and this plan leaves students in their current schools until new schools are built.