Wednesday, February 02, 2011

TOP STORY >> Vasquez offers his plan on school construction

Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District should build one new high school, one new middle school, one new elementary school and one primary school—starting as early as this summer—for all Jacksonville and north Pulaski County students. That’s what board president Bill Vasquez told about 85 people at a facilities meeting Monday night at the high school auditorium.

The fourth and final public meeting on Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school facilities is slated for 6 p.m. Thursday at North Pulaski High School, with district officials due to make recommendations at the regular Feb. 8 board meeting.

A committee of residents, formed at a previous facilities meeting sponsored by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, has proposed a more modest plan, which would build a new elementary school on Little Rock Air Force Base—but outside the fence—for students in the Tolleson and Arnold Drive attendance zones, and also a new Jacksonville elementary school and Jacksonville middle school at the site currently occupied by the Jacksonville Middle School. Those two might be wings flanking an administration, kitchen and mechanicals building, in one scenario.

“Right now if you live within two blocks of Jacksonville Elementary School, you may (be assigned) to one of four elementary schools for purposes of racial balance,” said Vasquez.

He called and organized the meeting, arranged for the school chorus and wind symphony to perform, invited the students to stay and comment, and ran the meeting, promoting his less-is-more idea to fix failing facilities and education. Fewer schools are better, that is.


Several students spoke up, some reminding the adults that good facilities alone do not a good school make. Others said they were picked on or not challenged in class.

“I don’t feel safe or comfortable all the time,” said one female student. “We get knocked down and shut down. People (at this meeting) care, but tomorrow will be the same.”

“I’m moved by the power of student voices,” Superintendent Charles Hopson said. “Do not let any adult in this building break your spirit or your will.”

“Jacksonville High means the world to me,” said wind symphony member Jessica Alvarado. “I have dreams. I don’t want to be held down. Please help us. We have aspirations.”

The students, most or all of whom were in the band or choir, said they were bullied at school and don’t always feel safe.

“We get called ‘fag’ or ‘lesbian,’” they said. “Or ‘beaner,’” said Alvarado.

Another student said that even in her advanced-placement classes she is often bored and needs teachers who will challenge her.


“The reason Jacksonville High School did not receive support is that the previous superintendents did not make Jacksonville a priority,” according to Karl Brown, director on special assignment to the high school. “They gave nothing but lip service, because ‘Jacksonville’s going to pull out (form its own district),’” Brown quoted them as saying in private.

“Now you have a superintendent who has made Jacksonville a priority,” Brown said.

That Jacksonville wasn’t getting its fair share didn’t surprise residents. Jacksonville High School seniors last school year found that area schools received only about 2 percent ($3.26 million) of $181.4 million allocated for new school construction and renovations from 2000 through 2011.

Former school board president Tim Clark pushed through an expensive new $60 million high school for his Maumelle constituents and Sherwood board member Charlie Wood got a $35 million middle school, while Jacksonville middle school still lacks doors on the boys restroom stalls, according to one parent.

Vasquez encouraged those at the meeting to contact their Jacksonville-area school board members—himself, Gwen Williams of McAlmont and Tom Stuthard, who represents the north Pulaski County area and much of Jacksonville west of 67/167.

Vasquez spoke from the stage as Hopson and operations chief Derek Scott, seated below in the front row, answered the occasional question directed to them by audience members.

Vasquez said that by combining the middle and high schools, students could have two or three times the number of elective choices they have currently and the district could be run much more efficiently.


The schools are withering away, he said. When his wife graduated from Jacksonville in 1975, there were about 600 seniors. Last year, the graduating class was about 150, he said.

Some of the change was beyond the control of the community—the local area and water were contaminated with dioxin from the Vertac plant, the Berlin Wall came down and the Air Force base downsized, and desegregation rulings and agreements took even more control out of local hands.

“Things are getting better,” he said. “We brought in Hopson and Scott.”

Vasquez said the district could pay for a $120 million building program by saving $10 million in annual costs.

He said PCSSD has $33 million intended to pay off construction bonds, but converts two-thirds of that money to cover salaries, maintenance and operations.

He called for a contest to come up with a new mascot and new school colors for a combined Jacksonville/North Pulaski high school.

“We can literally change the face of our city,” he said. Students could be graduating with one or two years of college credit already under their belts like some in Conway do. They can be prepared for college or careers in the building trades.

“We have a (former) professor of nanotechnology teaching regular biology here,” he said. “We have brainpower in the school.”

“In 1975, Jacksonville was the Maumelle of Pulaski County,” he said, the area with the rapid growth.

Board members Gloria Lawrence, Williams, Mildred Tatum and briefly Stuthard attended the meeting.

Mayor Gary Fletcher, several city council members, state Rep. Mark Perry and former board members Pat O’Brien and Danny Gililland attended, with Fletcher and O’Brien speaking.

Hopson said when he first came to the district, he visited Jacksonville schools and “I was appalled,” he said.

Hopson promised he was committed to fixing facilities and education in Jacksonville as well as the rest of the district.

“I’m not asking for your trust,” he said. “I have to earn your trust.”

O’Brien, the former Pulaski County clerk and school board member, said he was a Jacksonville High School graduate and resident. “I love the attitude and vigor,” said O’Brien of efforts currently under way, “but I’ve heard it for 23 years. Your plans are great but we’ve heard it all before.”

He said fewer and fewer people have come over the years to meetings to fix problems. If nothing is done, “sooner or later nobody will come to the meetings.”

“I won’t be part of a losing team,” said Scott. “I don’t get paid well enough to fail.”

“If we don’t take immediate action, then we will be dissolved,” said Hopson.

Fletcher told students not to be bullied, saying he had been a skinny, buck-toothed kid at Jacksonville many years previously. “It can get you down, or make you tough.”

“I’m committed to (Hopson),” Fletcher said. “We want our own district, but our kids can’t wait.”