Friday, May 20, 2011

TOP STORY > >PCSSD ready for deseg funding cut

Leader editor

Pulaski County School District officials are weighing their options after U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ruled Thursday that the state can end millions of dollars in desegregation funding to the district. The judge kept the Pulaski County schools under federal desegregation oversight.

Under the ruling, the state will be required to pay only approximately $9.5 million annually for the district’s majority-to-minority transfer program. The state may withhold as much as $7.5 million in annual aid.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Hopson said on Friday that the district is not in danger of becoming insolvent once desegregation funds are stopped. But Miller’s ruling does not say when those payments may cease.

“When you look at it, you’re talking about an amount that represents (7.5 percent) of a $255 million budget. I know it won’t make us insolvent,” Hopson told The Leader.

Hopson did not seem disappointed with the judge’s ruling. “If the money had been helpful, we’d be in unitary status,” he said.

“Essentially the judge said, ‘Your outcomes are really no different than in the last two decades.’”

“I respect the judge’s ruling in its entirety. I’m leaving it to our legal team to review,” he said.

“The money was not supposed to be permanent,” he said.

The superintendent said that his goal is to achieve unitary status, a racial balance with similar academic performance among students, and be released from federal oversight.

“We’re prepared for the immediate loss of funding to a gradual phaseout. We built this into the budget, and that was proactive on our part. You have to plan for the worst,” Hopson said.

“The budget was not built around desegregation funding,” he said.

Hopson said that next year’s budget, which has already been set, was designed as if desegregation funding were lost.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts maybe two more notches then we’ve had to in the past. But maybe that’s a good thing,” he said.

To help make up for the shortfall, the district will focus on realigning schools, restructuring and streamlining all aspects of the district’s operations. The district may consider cutting certain health benefits for some staff.

“Obviously, facilities inequity is blatant in the district,” he said. “Most would agree, fixing schools in Jacksonville is long overdue.”

--Judge Miller wrote in his order: “It seems that the state of Arkansas is using a carrot-and-stick approach with these districts, but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job. The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must now either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick.

“For these reasons, the state of Arkansas is hereby released from its obligation to pay for any and all of the North Little Rock School District’s, the Pulaski County Special School District’s, and the Little Rock School District’s desegregation efforts, except for those associated with M-to-M transfers.

“In no way is the state of Arkansas given credit or ‘brownie points’ for providing funds to the districts to help them desegregate. It must be clear that the state of Arkansas has unclean hands. Its history is steeped in segregation of schools as well as other public accommodations. Indeed, but for the discriminatory actions of the state of Arkansas and Gov. Faubus, the school districts at issue would be much further along the road to fully desegregating.”

Lawyers for the school district are studying the ruling to determine what, if any, recourse they have. The school board is expected to meet next week to discuss the ruling’s impact.

“There are lots of options. Obviously, a 110-page document has a lot to review,” said district spokeswoman Deborah Roush.

“We knew this was coming,” she said.

“Morale is good. There is an air of uncertainty until we can digest what it all means,” Roush said. --

The past week has been challenging for the district. The Legislative Joint Audit Committee was critical of PCSSD’s accounting practices during a May 13 hearing. Then on Monday, the state Board of Education voted to keep the district under the fiscal-distress label.

Despite the challenges, Roush is optimistic.

“It does not seem that fiscal distress will get in the way of building new schools,” she said.

Roush is confident that the district will overcome its problems. “There’s no stopping PCSSD. Times are changing,” she said.

She credits the superintendent as well as Derrick Brown, the district’s chief-technology officer; Derek Scott, executive director of operations, who is responsible for remodeling and building schools in the district, and chief financial officer Anita Farver with helping to turn the district around.

Hopson does not expect the ruling to delay plans to build new schools in Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, the teachers union, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, has filed a grievance with the school board to stop the temporary closing of Jacksonville Elementary School while a new facility is built to replace it. Hopson does not expect the grievance to be successful.

“I think it’s new and unprecedented for this district, which may be at the heart of (teachers’) concerns,” Hopson said.