Tuesday, March 01, 2011

TOP STORY >> Vasquez sees school district growing again

Leader senior staff writer

Enrollment numbers are climbing dramatically for new Pulaski County Special School District schools in Maumelle and Sherwood, which bodes well for the five totally rehabilitated schools and three new schools the district hopes to build over the next couple of years, school board president Bill Vasquez told a dozen Jacksonville Kiwanis Club members at noon Monday.

Vasquez praised the Kiwanis Club for its work with children, particularly the Jacksonville elementary school students, who are the poorest in the district, he said.

Vasquez told them that if the district can come up with $8 million in cuts or savings when it considers the 2011-2012 school budget at the April board meeting, he hopes to see bulldozers by the end of summer on the eight new or rehabilitated school buildings, three of which are in Jacksonville.

Eight million dollars in savings would secure about $104 million in bonds, the estimated amount needed to build a new elementary school at Little Rock Air Force Base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson Elementary schools, plus a new Jacksonville middle school and Jacksonville elementary school off Main Street at the site of the existing Jacksonville Middle School.

Schools slated for add-alters—that’s additions and alterations—include Harris, Scott and College Station Elementary schools and Robinson Middle School.

Of the projected enrollment at Maumelle High School—“it’s filling up”—and Sherwood Middle School—it looks like it will be stuffed full”—Vasquez said it doesn’t ensure that “if you build it they will come,” but that it was encouraging.

The 2010 census puts at about 8,000 the number of school-aged children in Pulaski County not in the public schools, including 3,000 to 4,000 in the Jacksonville area.

At about $7,000 per student in minimum foundation aid from the state, that’s about $21 million a year the district isn’t getting, plus another $15 million or so from pre-school aged children not enrolled in the pre-K programs.

“I’m a business-education major, with a master’s of science degree from UCA in training systems,” Vasquez said.

“If you don’t have customers, you’re out of business.”

He said that students seeking refuge in home schools, private schools and public charter schools are direct competition for the district.

He said the fate of the Jacksonville independent school district remained in the hands of the federal court, where District Judge Brian Miller has pondered the district’s unitary-status petition for more than a year.

He said districts throughout the country—and PCSSD in particular—had dropped the ball in spending to keep their buildings updated and in good condition.

Jacksonville had lost population—and income for district schools—through several events over which it had no control.

The base lost about 3,500 employees when the missile wing was moved out. The Vertac dioxin problem gave the area a bad name; the school-desegregation case drove off some population, and factories moved south of the border or overseas.

“The mayor says the crux of the problem is the public schools,” Vasquez said.

Every school in the district except Maumelle High School and the new Sherwood Middle School are outdated, he said.

The PCSSD school patrons aren’t about to vote millage increases to build new schools because they don’t trust the district to spend wisely.

“We need to see bulldozers all over the district,” he said. “All it takes is a commitment from the board and the superintendent.”

“Why didn’t we do this five or 10 years ago?” asked one man.

“Because of the struggles between (far-flung) communities,” Vasquez said.

“We have crossed over that hurdle. We’ll win students back.”