Tuesday, April 26, 2011

EDITORIAL >> The storms around us

A tornado Monday night damaged homes, planes and automobiles at Little Rock Air Force Base and destroyed much of North Pulaski High School nearby, reminding us that no area of Arkansas is safe from nature’s fury, especially this time of the year. 

Crews yesterday were clearing debris on the air base, although it will take a while for both the base and the high school to rebuild what was lost in the vicious storm. Planes are flying and classes will resume Friday, and we’re grateful no one was seriously hurt here, although at least 10 Arkansans lost their lives elsewhere. 

“Into every life a little rain must fall,” Longfellow wrote, but for the Pulaski County Special School District, North Pulaski High School and for much of the state, this is just too much. 

A few hours before the storm, Bobby Lester, the retired superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, was talking about problems in the district — mostly financial ones. 

Lester doesn’t care much for the report that Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued last week criticizing the county schools for misspending hundreds of millions of dollars in state-funded desegregation money. 

“I don’t remember any specific items that were supposed to be paid for with desegregation funding,” Lester told us. “There was no money necessarily earmarked for certain items.” 

He said the Office of Desegregation Monitoring  audited the three county districts semiannually for several years and has found them in compliance with funding requirements. 

Lester says as long as the county schools are under court supervision, they can say everything they do is to achieve integration. 

McDaniel — who wants to be governor or senator one day — paid an accounting firm a lot of money to make some political points.  

Over the last two decades, the state Education Department has funneled about $1 billion to the county school districts to achieve integration. 

A billion dollars will not necessarily get you a good education in Pulaski County. That’s the conclusion of a $250,000 audit commissioned by our ambitious attorney general, who hired Navigant, a New York accounting firm, to tell us that the Pulaski County districts have not always spent the public’s money wisely. 

Navigant has discovered — surprise, surprise — that the Pulaski County Special School District and the North Little Rock School District have misspent millions of dollars in state desegregation money for other purposes.  

That was the message McDaniel trumpeted last week, but the districts insist they did nothing wrong—that every dollar the state sends them is spent on balancing enrollment in their schools and offering better programs. 

According to the report, PCSSD has received $105 million in desegregation funding in the last five years alone, but only $61.5 million went toward desegregation efforts.  

Arkansas taxpayers have suspected this for a long time: All the desegregation money in the world won’t guarantee that a kid will learn to read and write. 

He’s hoping the courts will soon declare them “unitary,” or integrated, and the state aid for that purpose will end. 

The state Education Department is eager to shut off the spigot — $1 billion is a lot of money in a small state like Arkansas, especially when there’s not much to show for it. But there’s something more dramatic on the horizon: The department could take over PCSSD because of failing scores, financial mismanagement, including expense-account cheating, and nepotism. That will mean the dismissal of the school board and the superintendent. 

Lester, who was PCSSD superintendent from 1984-1999, has seen the district go from one crisis to the next. In the last dozen years, PCSSD has had seven superintendents. Buildings are crumbling and schools are closing. The troubled district has promised to spend more than $100 million on new schools, including three in Jacksonville, but any state takeover could delay such plans. 

Lester says PCSSD needs to reduce expenses to stay afloat. “We lost 37 percent of our tax base when a part of our district was moved into Little Rock,” he said. “We had to make several cuts in our budget.” 

But voters approved a millage increase in 1992 and the district survived. Because of the district’s shaky record, no such approval is likely anytime soon. That will put PCSSD in limbo indefinitely, probably under strict state supervision until the district puts its finances in order. That could take several years and perhaps longer.

Let’s hope North Pulaski High School is rebuilt sooner than later and the air base gets back to normal. And, please, no more storms for a while.