Friday, February 11, 2011

TOP STORY > >PCSSD plans for schools bring praise, some gripes

By  john hofheimer 
Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District Board’s vote to begin design work to build three new schools in Jacksonville and do an extreme makeover on four other district schools Tuesday night may have been unanimous, but that doesn’t mean all communities endorsed the plan.

The board appropriated $1.5 million from the district’s construction fund to begin design work for the seven projects in order to assess the proposal’s feasibility in time to cut $8 million from the 2011-2012 budget in April and to sell $104 million in construction bonds, keeping with the timeline proposed by Derek Scott, the district’s chief of operations. That $8 million represents 5 percent of the district’s discretionary budget, according to Scott.

Jacksonville-area participants seemed of a single mind in their enthusiasm for the proposal to build a new elementary school on Little Rock Air Force Base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson and also to build a new Jacksonville middle school and elementary school at the site of the former girls middle school.


Rizzelle Aaron, of the Jacksonville NAACP, told the board that support was so widespread for the Jacksonville plan that he and Mayor Gary Fletcher found themselves uncharacteristically on the same side of an issue. Board president Bill Vasquez, who earlier proposed making deeper budget cuts to fund a more aggressive building program, voted for the appropriation.

He did seem to hold out hope that the proposed new Jacksonville ele-mentary schools might be “a Clinton-sized elementary schools that could affect several local elementaries.”

But patrons in areas slated for extreme makeovers—add/alters in Scott’s military-inflected jargon—instead of new schools were less happy, particularly Robinson-area patrons, who want a new middle school.

The last school built in their area was Chenal Elementary about three years ago. Scott agreed that Robinson Middle School was in deplorable shape, but said it was salvageable.

“What determines if it should be replaced?” asked Sandra Sawyer, who represents Robinson and West Little Rock on the board.

“Community desires have to be balanced with fiscal realities,” said Scott. “When we’re done, it will not look like putting lipstick on a pig.”


“It has good bones,” Scott said. He added that it had “bad skin and arteries.”

For instance, it has traditional structure, not outdoor hallways, like Jacksonville Middle School.

“Everyone in my zone wants new schools,” Sawyer said. “We’re not going to close any doors, but we will move forward and see what we can get.

“We’re losing a lot of students. At some point we have to implement some fairness or you’ll lose what support you have. Spend wisely,” she said.

She asked if the schools getting the extreme makeovers would be outfitted with new technology.

“We will take the 21st Century approach to technology and upgrade them to state standards,” said Superintendent Charles Hopson. “Pine Forest isn’t even the same school.”

One of her constituents complained to Scott, “You came to our meeting and came back with nothing we wanted. Nobody allowed us to show what we came up with as a community.”

Vasquez said that the add/alter—a military term for making alterations and additions to a building—would be like lifting a gas cap on a junker and driving a new car under it.


“If it’s done right, when you drive up, you’ve got the ‘wow,’” Scott said.

He promised that the communities would be involved in the design of the new schools and the add/alters, in design charettes with architects and school officials.

He said the recently completed work at Pine Forest Elementary School was an example of a properly done add/alter.

“College Station would like to have a new school,” said board member Mildred Tatum.

Board member Gwen Wil-liams said that promised improvements to Harris Elementary School, in her zone, never materialized as the money was cannibalized for use by new schools in Maumelle and Sherwood.

“Time has revealed the results of the incomplete projects,” said Williams, “—leaking water, termites, mold, rust and flooding. The money was used to top off the new schools.”

She also complained that the press had turned out for all other community-facilities meetings, but not for the two in her district—Harris and Scott elementary schools.

While neither Tatum nor Williams were happy that their schools would receive only add/alters, the district’s first proposal called for closing College Station, Harris and Scott, all fairly decrepit and each with fewer than 300 students, and to put all elementary-aged students in those zones into a new elementary school at an undetermined site.


“It’s based on a needs assessment,” he said of the plan. “The ones we are recommending are the worst of the worst.”

Scott said district schools got in such bad shape through decades of neglect. “The industry standard is to spend 1.5 percent of replacement costs to maintain or 2 percent on modernization,” which with the district’s total replacement cost of facilities estimated at $1 billion, means it should have been spending $15 million to $20 million a year on upkeep.

In other business, the board heard a report from its attorney, Jay Bequette, about the current status of DREAM’s after-school program’s debt to the district. Bequette said DREAM was behind in its repayment, possibly triggering the clause in the agreement requiring immediate payment of the entire $22,000 owed.

Williams, Vasquez and others think the district has not treated the DREAM program equitably, and asked Bequette to do further investigation and report back.


Without discussion, the board unanimously:

 Revised its policy regarding the budget due date, moving it up to April.

Upgraded the director of school maintenance-services position to grade-range 17 to attract more qualified individuals—at a cost of $2,066. That job has been vacant for several years.

 Increased pay and benefits for the athletic director by $6,082 to reflect the increased responsibilities.

 Settled lawsuits reimbursing attorney’s fees of $70,000 to the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and reinstating the professional-growth plan, also agreeing to pay the teachers who took an accrued-leave day on Dec. 9, 2009, after the PACT contract was not approved by the board.

 Authorized the payment of as much as $10,000 a year to be awarded for leading transformational initiatives that could save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.