Tuesday, June 14, 2011

TOP STORY >> Breaking up PCSSD seen as a solution

Leader staff writer

There’s not a better time for Jacksonville to get its own district than now—those were the thoughts Monday of State Rep. Allen Kerr.

Kerr, who as a youth attended Jacksonville schools, is a member of the Legislative Audit Committee, which recommended last week that the Pulaski County Special School District Board be dissolved and the state Education Department consider consolidating the district.

Gov. Mike Beebe and Education Department commissioner Tom Kimbrell of Cabot are said to be discussing a state takeover of the troubled district as soon as this week. (See editorial, p. 16A.)

Kerr, a Republican lawmaker representing Little Rock, said he would like to see a south-of-the-river district and north-of-the-river district, “and then let Jacksonville do its own thing.”

Kerr’s comments came on the heels of a Sunday evening state school-board workshop where the topic of dissolving PCSSD also came up. The board also discussed U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s recent ruling for the state to immediately stop $70 million in desegregation payments to the three Pulaski County school districts.

Dr. Charles Hopson, the PCSSD superintendent, attended the Sunday state-board workshop as an observer, and came back to the board’s regularly scheduled meeting Monday morning and thanked the board for placing his district in fiscal distress. He said he appreciated the work by ADE assistant commissioner for finance, Bill Goff, and the supervisor of the fiscal-distress unit, Hazel Burnett. He said his local board was working toward becoming a functional unit and asked that the state not dissolve the board.

But then Monday night, Hopson’s own board went into executive session to discuss whether or not to fire the superintendent, who has only been on the job for about a year.

Board member Tom Struthard, of Sherwood, made the motion to dismiss Hopson. Gloria Lawrence, also of Sherwood, also voted for the dismissal.


Because Sunday’s state board meeting was a workshop and not a regular meeting, members discussed a state takeover, but they could not take any formal action.

Kimbrell said the department and state board will not be able to help the districts financially but can offer support and assistance in putting together a budget. “It’ll be quite a difficult transition. Difficult, but not impossible. Significant decisions will have to be made.”

He said in the case of PCSSD and NLRSD, because of their distress tag, the department would have final budget approval.

He said the stoppage of the funds, about $20 million for PCSSD, works out to around 10 percent of the districts’ budgets.

Board member Dr. Ben Mays said that structurally PCSSD was fundamentally inefficient. “To be a donut wrapped around two other districts. There is something terribly wrong with that. It’s very inefficient, and it’s our job to look at the efficiency of districts.”

Vicki Saviers, a board member from Pulaski County, said it was a geographical problem and “not an economical or effective way to educate kids.”

She said it may have made sense years ago, “but does it still make sense?” Saviers said the transportation costs for the district are upwards of $20 million a year.

Board member and former state Sen. Brenda Gullett said the question for too long has been: “Who is wrong, instead of what is wrong? We are not on a witch hunt here.”

Another board member, Jim Cooper, suggested the board recommend changes in the boundary lines of the three Pulaski County districts to help make PCSSD a more efficient district.

But the board was reminded by attorney Jeremy Lasiter that it got its hands slapped a number of years ago when it gave Jacksonville its blessings to pursue its own district because PCSSD was under federal desegregation monitoring.

“We need to tread carefully,” said board member Sam Ledbetter, a former state representative. “We need to go to the court with an idea that will give everyone a bigger bang for their bucks.”

The board was concerned because both PCSSD and the North Little Rock School District are still under federal monitoring and are both in fiscal distress. Little Rock School District is in neither, but what happens in the other two districts affects Little Rock.

“We are dealing with the education of 52,000 students,” said Saviers, “that’s important.”

Kimbrell said that was about 10 percent of the state’s total student population.


Lasiter, the state board’s attorney, also gave board members a briefing on Judge Miller’s ruling to stop giving the districts the deseg money.

“The position of the state over the past few years has been that the money was serving as an impediment to the districts reaching federal court-ordered desegregation goals. If the district achieved the goals, it would lose millions. If it didn’t then the money kept coming,” the attorney said.

He said the state tried to work with the three county districts a few years ago to prepare them for a wind down of the funding.

“We offered them a seven-year window to get ready for funding to stop and offered to give them $700 million over those seven years. The districts declined,” Lasiter said.

It was made clear to the board that if the districts’ appeals didn’t get a release of the money, that it would not go to the Education Department.

“Seventy million dollars were taken off the top of the general funds each year,” Kimbrell explained. “It’s a pretty good chance that we won’t see any of it if the appeals hold up.”

Gullett related the deseg funding to winning the lottery. “Those winnings do dry up and then you are up a creek, and that’s where these districts are now.”

“As a parent,” Saviers said, “the question I need to ask is what does all this mean to me and my children for next year?”

Struthard said Tuesday that Rizelle Aaron of the Jacksonville chapter of the NAACP claims to have audio tapes that might embarrass the board.

“Please listen to the audio which I have received and hopefully you will take the time to refocus your attention,” Aaron e-mailed board members. “I received this audio a couple of weeks ago and Lt. (Tim) Hibbs with the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office has been informed.”