Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday threw a lifeline to Pulaski County schools when it ruled that the three school districts can continue receiving desegregation funds from the state.

The decision stops U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s previous decision to cut nearly $70 million in desegregation funding. Continued state aid will help the financially strapped districts stay afloat, especially the Pulaski County Special School District, which is now under state supervision.

PCSSD patrons had hoped that Bobby Lester, their beloved former superintendent, would step in to rescue the district, and with the state Education Department seizing control and firing first-year Superintendent Charles Hopson, Lester has agreed—at least in the interim.

But Lester is long retired, has some health problems and is not expected to run the district with state Education Department Commissioner Tom Kimbrell for more than a few weeks or months.

The state will probably run the troubled district for two years, when PCSSD could regain local control and perhaps in a leaner fashion by spinning off Jacksonville.

We had a front-row seat to Hopson’s innovative efforts to resuscitate this pitiful school district despite the petty and self-serving efforts of most school-board members and the teachers’ union to frustrate his efforts.

Well, they’ve succeeded, and not to their own benefit.

Members of the state Legislative Audit Committee—those are state senators and representatives—more intent on getting good sound bites, good publicity in their home districts and beating up on PCSSD, helped precipitate the state takeover, many of them without any real understanding of what was going on in the district, which issues are old or resolved and the huge improvement made in the past 12 months.

Most of the district’s problems cited by state auditors are left over from previous administrations and school boards.

The district has a long and troubled history, much of it caused by dueling school-board members, some of whom are reportedly under investigation for making and taking illegal payoffs—such as the silly incident where board member Tim Clark joined Mills High School principal Mike Nellums in an effort to entrap board member Gwen Williams.

Hopson brought in experts to streamline the district’s procurement process and information technology, and with Operations Director Derrick Scott, came up with an ambitious plan to build three new schools in Jacksonville and do extreme makeovers of four others throughout the district. (Those plans appear to be now on hold.)

Hopson hired consultants to help district administrators and teachers confront issues of race. With the help of Chief Financial Officer Anita Farver, he proposed—and the board approved—a litany of changes to make the district’s finances more transparent and assure better oversight and accountability.

In the process, Hopson alienated the teachers’ union, which felt threatened by all the change, especially any that might put its members out of their comfort zones or threatened their control.

One of the things the district has been criticized for is its large legal bills, which included lawyers for desegregation purposes, and an expensive effort pressed by the school board to disenfranchise the district’s two unions.

Kimbrell fired Hopson when he disbanded the school board, and said the district would pay the superintendent’s salary only through July 1. Kimbrell said the district won’t pay for the final two years of Hopson’s three-year contract.

Kimbrell apparently thinks he has the power to abrogate contracts, but we suspect the district is in for more lengthy and expensive legal proceedings as it tries to ruin Hopson’s reputation and kick him to the curb without paying what’s owed him.

And if we were teachers in a state-run district in fiscal distress, we’d be a little nervous about a new boss who thinks contracts need to be enforced only when convenient.

We’ve already heard from several people who think the district should be disbanded and its students absorbed into North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts—that’s one district north of the Arkansas River, one south.

So on top of Judge Miller’s recent ruling that PCSSD was not substantially unitary, its patrons and its teachers no longer have any control over the third largest district in the state.

Board president Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville was the first to publicly call for a state takeover about two years ago, and this week applauded the action. Thankfully, he is out of a job now, along with the rest of the board, although some of them promise to run when school-board elections are held again.

What any of this means to an eventual Jacksonville school district is unclear. Hopson had a plan, and despite the board and the unions, it was working.

We hope Kimbrell has a plan. Welcome to a world of uncertainty. If you’re looking for certainty, look to Cabot.