Friday, February 04, 2011

TOP STORY > >Save our school, parents plead

Leader senior staff writer

Don’t consolidate our high school with Jacksonville High, and don’t send us the underclassmen and the upperclassmen either, many among the 85 people attending 2020 Vision school facilities meeting at North Pulaski High School told district officials Thursday night at the fourth and final public meeting before the school board considers a plan to build new schools and close others.

They asked for, and seemed to receive, assurances that such action wasn’t in the works, at least in the first phase of change and construction.

Derek Scott, Pulaski County Special School District’s chief of operations, said neither of those scenarios would be on the proposal he and Superintendent Charles Hopson would submit to the board at its Feb. 8 meeting.

“I will not present a high school in phase one,” Scott promised the group.

Board president Bill Vasquez and Hopson gave Scott the responsibility to assess and prioritize the district’s facilities needs and recommend a plan and a way to pay for it.

While the board may act on the proposal at the February or March meeting, the real decision would be set in concrete at the April meeting, when the board is slated to vote on the 2011-2012 budget, according to Vasquez.

While a single high school is part of the more aggressive plan promoted by Vasquez, board members Gwen Williams and Gloria Lawrence joined Tom Stuthard in saying they didn’t favor such moves, at least at this time.

Stuthard represents north Pulaski County on the board.

“I agree with one new high school (for the Jacksonville and north Pulaski zones)” Stuthard said, “maybe in six or eight years. Leave them the way they are now.”

“I am pro-Derek Scott,” said Lawrence. “He will lead us down the right direction.”

“Have you talked to the kids?” asked Rebecca Bailey, a Northwood eighth-grader. “Me and a lot of the other kids don’t want this to happen.”

Bailey attended at least two of the four facilities-planning meetings.

Scott told the group that he expects to recommend the construction of two new elementary schools and a new middle school, plus some rehabilitation and repair.

“I teach at Cato Elementary,” said Tangie Peters, fighting back tears. “I’ve heard no mention of our school and our kids deserve good schools.”

“This school district isn’t short of needs,” Scott said, “but short of resources.

“Pimp my school,” Scott said, alluding to the cable television show “Pimp My Ride,” in which derelict vehicles are rebuilt and re-spruced into enviable new vehicles on old frames.

If the board can squeeze sufficient savings to pay for the sale of a construction bond, Scott said he expects to recommend that a new school be built on Little Rock Air Force Base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools, and at the site of the current Jacksonville Middle School, both a new Jacksonville elementary school and Jacksonville middle school, both flanking a core building including administration, kitchen and perhaps mechanical areas.

Arnold Drive is on the base, within the fenced perimeter and Tolleson is on base property, outside the fence.

The perimeter fence would be moved to leave the new school outside the fence, Scott said. Scott received widespread applause when he asked if they favored one new school to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson. The two are only about a mile apart.

Many attending said they opposed sending students temporarily to other schools while new ones were built.

“I’ve heard that a lot,” said Scott, and he said he’d try hard not to do that.

During construction of the new elementary and middle schools east of Hwy. 67/167, the middle-school students may attend the old junior high next door, Scott said.

He said the estimated $104 million needed could be leveraged from $8 million savings the board would need to squeeze from the budget. “We want to cut the fat, but not nick the bone,” said Scott, a civil engineer who oversaw facilities for the Air Force for the last 18 years of his service.

“If we don’t break ground by the end of the year, I’ll be disappointed,” he said.

He said he hoped to get the schools designed this winter and break ground by next fall or winter.

He said he hoped to have students in the three new schools “two-and-a-half years from today, but we’ll start planning the next phase before then.”

Tightening the budget by $20 million would pay for Vasquez’s more ambitious plan. The district receives $33 million a year from property millage—money that is supposed to be used to retire bonded indebtedness. In reality, he said, only about $10 million is used for that purpose, the rest going into salaries of administrators, teachers and other costs.

“If you put the elementary and middle schools together, you’re going to create more problems,” said parent Keith Weber.

“Some buildings are deplorable, but the building is not what makes a school successful,” said Cheryl Carpenter, a 9th-grade English teacher to applause. “(Little Rock) Central was built in 1929 and it gets the most merit scholars in the state.”

She said the most important factors were the people in the building and the lack of discipline.