Tuesday, June 14, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Future dim for PCSSD

At any moment — today would not be too soon — the state Education Department could pull the plug on the Pulaski County Special School District, which is just surviving on life support.

The failed school district has few friends, especially in the state legislature, where the Legislative Audit Committee has recommended disbanding the district and letting the state Education Department run it.

Committee members from Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-North Little Rock) to Rep. Bill Pritchard (R-Elkins) all agreed Friday: Disband PCSSD and start all over.

The school district has no political support anywhere: Local legislators, from Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) to Jane English (R-North Little Rock) to Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) have given up all hope and wouldn’t mind it if the Education Department took over management.

The district has several failing schools on the Education Department’s watch list, including Jacksonville and North Pulaski high schools, Sylvan Hills Middle School and Northwood Middle School.

The Education Department could step in, but it has balked at taking over the troubled district for obvious reasons, apart from the long-running desegregation lawsuit: The district is too big and rundown and faces financial ruin once the federal courts cut off desegregation funds.

It would take an organizational genius to turn the district around: Maybe Tom Kimbrell, the department’s commissioner, is such a genius, but he might prefer letting the courts run the district instead.

The damaging legislative audit, the circus around the video scam to damage a school-board member and all the rest are merely wearisome, not revelations. Each is merely another tiresome chapter in a chronicle that goes back many decades in the Pulaski County Special School District. Some of us can remember the epic scraps of Superintendent E. Fay Dunn and Winston G. Chandler Jr.

Assure us that it is not the water. Maybe it is time to consider whether there is something organic, cultural or geographic about the big doughnut district that makes people—school board members, administrators, auxiliary organizations and, yes, maybe even the patrons—behave in a fractious, devious, petulant and selfish way.

Twenty-seven years ago, U.S. District Judge Henry Woods ordered the school district, commonly referred to then as the “rural” district, to be combined with the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts to form one metropolitan school system. It was supposed to end the old practices of segregation, but it was also expected to end the geographic rivalries and discrimination among the richer and poorer parts of the urban community. The appellate court at St. Louis altered the order to simply expand the boundaries of the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts.

One remedy that Woods considered and rejected, to his subsequent regret, was a river division of the schools—one district north of the Arkansas River and another south of it. Each would enjoy some community of interest and likely some community of purpose that would infect the school board members, administrators and teachers. That is only a theory, but it is a remedy or at least a turn of events that we ought to contemplate.

Jacksonville has for some years, with good cause, sought its own independent school district. That, alas, will not happen anytime soon.

Legislators have even adopted the one word we most often use to describe the district: Dysfunctional.

Except for school-district officials and a handful of school board members, no one will defend the district and its record of failure and mismanagement. One school board member, Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville, told the Legislative Audit Committee to fire the board and abolish his job.

Critics on the Legislative Audit Committee represent both political parties and come from all sections of the state. They’re conservative and liberal, black and white, and fed up with failing test scores and millions of dollars misspent.

The legislative call to do something about a school system that the lawmakers view as out of control clearly will now lead to something—a temporary takeover of the schools by the state Department of Education, a legislative or administrative reorganization of the school districts in the county or some hybrid. The Pulaski County Special School District will not be unchanged.

Leaders of the community should acknowledge that the status quo cannot be defended and begin to suggest an organization that might produce, if not complete collegiality, a way to harmonize everyone’s interest in establishing great schools for the big suburban area.