Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TOP STORY >> Ruling: PCSSD wasted money

Leader staff writer

State Rep. Mark Perry was glad to see U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s decision to cut off $70 million in desegregation funding to three Pulaski County school districts.

“He saw what the state legislature has know for a long time. We’ve known that the districts haven’t used the money right for the past 20 years. If you had a chance to listen to my legislative colleagues, they are fed up,” said the representative whose district covers a large segment of Jacksonville.

“We need to see what kind of appeals will be filed, but this shakeup is long overdue,” Perry added.

“There’s a lot to be determined yet,” said Daniel Gray after reading Judge Brian Miller’s recent ruling in the Pulaski County Special School District’s decades- old desegregation lawsuit.

The PCSSD School Board agreed with Gray’s assumption and has called a special meeting for 7:30 tonight to discuss the ruling and look at options.

Gray, who is chairman of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce’s education committee, said he was encouraged by the tone of the ruling.

“The tone was that things are working and haven’t been working for a long time. That’s what we’ve been saying,” said Gray, who is also a member of the Jacksonville World Class Education organization and the Jacksonville Education Foundation, groups dedicated to improving schools in Jacksonville and working diligently to get the city its own school district.

“As long as we are a part of the county district we will work with PCSSD and are all in for the students,” Gray explained.

Gray is happy just to see a decision come from the courts. “This judge seems more open to changing the status quo than past judges,” he said. “And I think he will be faster making decisions. I’m no attorney, but I think this opens up opportunities for us.”

Gray’s chamber committee is set to meet June 13 and the judge’s ruling and its implications will be the main focus of discussion.

Judge Miller ruled PCSSD and North Little Rock School District had partially met the requirements of the desegregation suit and ordered an end to $70 million in annual desegregation payments to the three Pulaski County school districts. PCSSD’s cut is around $17 million a year.

The judge said that the state of Arkansas was using a carrot-and-stick approach with the three school districts in Pulaski County and that those districts have become wise mules and learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job. The judge, in his decision, said, “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.”

In his ruling, Miller said rewarding the districts with state money for failing to eradicate the achievement gap between white and black students was an “absurd outcome.”

Patrick Wilson, legal counsel for the Jacksonville Education Foundation, said the foundation applauded Miller’s courage and “appreciates the fact he is trying to do something other than the status quo.”

Wilson said unfortunately there will certainly be appeals. “That process had already started and we will monitor those in our efforts to move forward with our own district,” he said.

Attorney Mike Wilson said the judge ruled that PCSSD was unitary in three or four areas, but not in six or eight. “But, most importantly, he released the state from its $70 million payments to all three districts in the county.”

Wilson said the local groups pushing for the standalone district need to push harder now.

School board president Bill Vasquez said under the ruling, “It will be six to seven years before we can break away.

“While we are hermetically sealed to the district, the kids deserve the best,” he said.

Vasquez feels the district has the ability to fix Jacksonville’s failing schools and repair facilities.

He said the district would focus on building schools and bringing technology to classrooms.

“According to the judge, the worst schools in the district are in Jacksonville,” he said.

“The quicker we address (the district’s problems), the quicker people are going to bring their kids to our schools,” he said.

“We’re going to have a state-of-the-art junior high school, and following that up with a state-of-the-art high school,” he said.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be worth it,” he said.

If PCSSD builds new schools that educate children well, Vasquez believes the district can win over many Jacksonville residents who have been working to break away.

Jacksonville’s schools will be some of the best in the district within 10 years, he said.

In the meantime, Vasquez is hoping the district can retain the desegregation funding from the state that the judge ordered cut. “We’d like to keep it all and work on a phaseout,” he said.

He said the judge’s ruling was surprising in that it called for an immediate halt to most desegregation funding. “We’ve been looking for a three-, five- or seven-year phaseout.”

Vasquez said that he understood the judge’s frustration with the district’s desegregation efforts. “We’ve taken the money and not done the job to the detriment of poor black students,” he said. “We took the money and ran.”

He said he has faith in Superintendent Dr. Charles Hopson’s ability to get the district back on track to achieving unitary status.

“Dr. Hopson went to segregated schools until he was a junior in high school down in Prescott. He went to UCA in the early ’70s at a time when it was tough to get in” as a black man, Vasquez said.

Jonathan Feldman contributed to this report.