Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TOP STORY >> State wants PCSSD fixed

Special to The Leader

The state Board of Education on Monday classified the Pulaski County Special School District as being in “fiscal distress” despite acknowledgment from nearly all quarters that school officials have made many improvements the last few months.

School officials said they were disappointed in the unanimous vote — which means the state must approve all spending in the district. The Education Department said it lacked the resources to run the district. PCSSD will go ahead with a $104 million bond issue for a construction and renovation plan of seven campuses, including two new elementary and a new middle school in Jacksonville and closing Jacksonville Elementary in June.

“We’re going to keep on going,” said PCSSD board president Bill Vasquez. (See editorial, p. 10A).

The district is the third-largest in the state, with some 17,500 students. It has endured bad press and a series of lawmakers’ rebukes the last few months over its spending habits and shortcomings in accounting for some funds.

Vasquez noted that most school districts placed on the state’s fiscal-distress list over the years have fund balances of little or nothing.

“We don’t have that (problem),” he said. “We have a healthy fund balance and a rainy-day fund. We’re setting aside money for facilities, and we’ve found $8 million incuts for those facilities. We’ll work with the state in doing what’s best for our students.”

The state board opened its meeting at 9 a.m. Monday, but with a full agenda that included two other fiscally distressed classifications (North Little Rock School District and the Earle School District, both approved), it didn’t get to the PCSSD matter until about 4 p.m. The board spent about an hour and a half on the PCSSD issue before voting. Its work was whether to affirm the Department of Education’s classification a month ago that the district was in fiscal distress.

The classification means that most expenditures will require the approval of the Department of Education, along with its guidance in developing budgets. A district can stay on the list for as long as two years before it faces even stiffer sanctions if substantial progress isn’t made. The Cross County School District in eastern Arkansas was taken off the list after just nine months, the shortest time since the program (and its sister, “academic distress”) was created some 15 years ago.

Asked if the district might break that nine-month record, Vasquez smiled and said, “We’ll see how hard everyone works.”

Of the district’s recent work to correct deficiencies, William Goff, an assistant commissioner in the Department of Education, told board members: “I will say that it is a very good, well-thought-out plan. If that plan is implemented, not circumvented, it will answer most of the problems…”

Sam Jones, a Little Rock attorney recently hired as the district’s outside counsel, was critical of some of the audits, or reports, that precipitated the “fiscal-distress” label. Jones said only one firm has conducted a legitimate audit of the district – the Hudson, Cisne and Co., in Little Rock, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Jones said most if not all shortcomings in those audits have been corrected.

Jones questioned the work of the Arkansas Legislative Audit and Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, whose members have grilled district officials three times in recent months.

He was especially scathing of a report last month by Navigant Consulting, Inc., a Chicago firm hired for $250,000 by the state attorney general’s office to investigate how the PCSSD, the North Little Rock School District and the Little Rock School District spend their portions of some $80 million a year in desegregation funds. He said that report wasn’t attributed to anyone and was based on hearsay.

“We worked with Navigant,” Jones said. “We thought they’d help all three districts.” He said the Little Rock School District refused to work with the firm. “Maybe they’re smarter than us.”

He said it has been impossible, since the report was released, to talk with anyone at the firm. “It’s the rankest form of hearsay I have seen in a long time,” Jones said. “It’s a report for litigation. It’s not a report for a board of education in these matters.”

He noted that the board’s own PowerPoint presentation for the hearing had these “disclaimers” for the portion dealing with the Navigant report:

n That Navigant based its work on documents not independently confirmed by the company.

n That Navigant “cannot be certain at this time that all of the information collected is accurate or complete.”

n Dr. Naccamon Williams, chairman of the state Board of Education, noted progress by the district in recent months. However, he added, any regulations approved by the district’s board can, at any point, be overturned by that board.

Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock, a former state representative, lawyer and state board member, praised the district’s work. “I think the district is turning the corner. I think the district will turn the corner,” he said before adding that the state board had a responsibility to work with the district in solving any remaining problems.

Shortly before the vote, Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell decried talk that the work of the board in dealing with the school district is rooted in politics.

“This is not politically motivated,” Kimbrell said. “I get e-mails saying that. The Department of Education doesn’t have the resources to take over the Pulaski County Special School District.”