Friday, March 04, 2011

TOP STORY >> New schools to replace old ones

Leader senior staff writer

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and other area education activists are reluctant but willing to see the decrepit Jacksonville Elementary School closed at the end of this school year if the Pulaski County Special School District will make good on its promise to replace it by the 2012-2013 school year with a new one at the other end of downtown, according to Daniel Gray.

The move would save the district an estimated $780,000 a year toward the $8 million the board needs to make in cuts to pay for new and renovated schools.

“We’re disappointed that it’s closing, and we understood it was a possibility,” said Gray, who speaks as both the chamber education committee chair and the Jacksonville World Class Education Association president. “As long as they are going to start construction immediately, it’s okay.”

While many Jacksonville residents have worked toward detaching from the PCSSD for decades, since Superintendent Charles Hopson and his staff took over administrative duties in July, the conversation has changed—for now anyway—to getting better schools and better education for Jacksonville students regardless.

Gray said support assumes that students who would have attended Jacksonville Elementary would instead be assigned to other community elementary schools such as Murrell Taylor, Pinewood and Warren Dupree.

Brenda Bowles, superintendent for equity services, would have to evaluate the reassignment effect on racial balance, and the federal court would have to be notified, at least.

“All the kids are going to benefit,” Gray said. “The gain is much greater than the temporary suffering.”

The vision includes new Jacksonville elementary and middle schools at the old middle school site as wings to a central building for administration offices, a kitchen, the media center and other areas, but the classrooms, cafeterias and some other areas would be separate.

Also slated for construction is a new elementary school on 20 acres at Little Rock Air Force Base that would serve students in attendance zones from which Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools currently draw.

The administration has asked architects Witsell, Evans and Rasco to work on the Jacksonville elementary and middle school complex.

Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson architects is working on the elementary that would replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson. Baldwin and Shell contractors are working on all three of the proposed new Jacksonville schools, according to Scott.

As for the extreme makeovers, Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson is working on Robinson Middle School with contractor Harco Construction.

Polk Stanley Wilcox architects are working with East Harding Construction on both College Station and Harris and Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson and Harco are working on Scott Elementary, he said.

Closing Jacksonville Elementary is a key part of Hopson’s plan to cut $8 million from the budget to leverage a $104 million bond sale and to fund an ambitious program to build three new schools in the Jacksonville area and to completely rehabilitate Harris Elementary School at McAlmont, Scott Elementary at Scott, College Station Elementary School at College Station and Robinson Middle School in West Little Rock.

The school board, which heard the administrations’ proposed list of cuts—including the school closure—at a workshop meeting Tuesday, is expected to further discuss the proposed cuts at the regular meeting Tuesday.

The state Board of Education would have to approve the bond purchase, Derek Scott, district chief of operations, said Thursday.

The district is expected to approve its 2011-2012 budget in April, and the cuts to support the bond sale would be reflected in that budget.

The bonds would be sold about the end of July.

The administration has entered into handshake deals with architects and builders for each of those projects, according to Scott.

“They are operating at risk right now,” Scott said of the architects and builders who are helping to give shape to the various projects to reassure district patrons that they will be getting something of value to assure the district that it can afford its own ambitious plan.

Operating at risk, but not totally at risk. The board has authorized spending $1.5 million in construction funds toward planning.

If it can be done for the money available, the school board seems supportive of the plan, which includes two new elementary schools and one new middle school in Jacksonville, as well as the “add/alters” or addition and alterations of elementary schools at Harris, Scott, and College Station and the Robinson Middle School.

Scott, who was point man for both Hopson and for the board, said he was encouraged by the board and its commitment to build new facilities and fix old ones.

The board has authorized the district to apply for $15 million of the $33 million the state has left in stimulus funds that could be used for school construction. Twenty schools are known to have applied for a share of that money and if the district gets any of it, some think $2 million is more likely.

Of the $8 million in proposed cuts, $2.6 million would be from the academic-accountability division; $209,100 from equity and pupil services; $1.5 million from operations; $1.2 million from business; $5,000 from communications; $100,000 from the superintendent’s office; $100,000 from human resources; $100,000 from information technology and $2.23 million from systemic changes.

The $2.6 million from the academic accountability division would be derived from reducing the number of employees and redefining and transferring other positions so they are not paid out of funds that can be used to pay debt service. It includes $600,000 annual savings from cutting six assistant principals, $500,000 from eliminating five of 36 speech pathologists and eliminating two special-education coordinators to save $200,000.

Savings from equity and pupil services include cutting four registrars, reducing days for elementary registrars and cutting 5 percent of the division budget.

 Savings in operations —$1.5 million; from using district-owned modular classrooms instead of leasing—$170,000; contracting some custodial services—$120,000; savings from utility costs-$120,000;strategic sourcing solutions for bus and vehicle parts—$310,000 and reducing the number of maintenance positions by 20 and restructuring.

 Business division savings—$1.2 million including: refinancing bonds—$720,000; restructuring food services including eliminating bakery production—$120,000; cutting two food service workers and two relief managers—$70,000 and savings from over-allocation of insurance payments—$200,000.

 Communications division savings—$5,000 from cuts in advertising budget.

 Superintendent’s office savings—$100,000 from outsourcing grant writing.

 Human resource savings--$100,000 from savings in attorney’s fees by hiring staff attorney and minimizing outside attorney use.

 Information technology savings—$100,000; from reduction in computer maintenance costs and savings on toner cartridges by going to managed document services.

 Systemic change savings—$2.23 million, including closing Jacksonville Elementary School—$758,000; reducing temporary position—$300,000; overtime reduction—$125,000; attrition, including not replacing 17 teaching positions—$1 million.