Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TOP STORY >> Lester: Local control two years away

Leader executive editor

Bobby Lester of Jacksonville, who was named the interim superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District after Monday’s takeover by the state Education Department, says he’ll hold the job for only a few weeks until someone is appointed to take his place.

He told The Leader in an interview that it could take two years before the Education Department releases the troubled district from state control. (See editorial, p. 10A.)

Citing health issues — he recently had a knee-replacement operation — the former longtime PCSSD superintendent said he does not want the stress of a full-time job beyond the summer.
He described Monday’s state takeover as “very emotional. I love this district. I made my living working for it.”

Dr. Tom Kimbrell, the state education commissioner, in announcing the state takeover of PCSSD and also the Helena-West Helena School District, said there was not an ideal time for a takeover.

“When we feel as a state that the district is ready, then we’ll turn it back over to local control,” Kimbrell said Monday. “It’s all about the kids, and everything is up in the air.”

Kimbrell said there was not one thing that pushed the district into the takeover situation. “The whole tone at the top continued to be a problem,” Kimbrell said.

He said the district had a host of fiscal problems and continued to fail to follow its own policies.

Lester said state officials had asked him several times to lead the district again, but he hesitated taking the job. Finally, on Friday, he was asked again to step in and this time said yes because of his strong ties to the district, where he had also been a teacher, high school principal and then superintendent.

He steps into the job as Jacksonville Elementary School is closing down and plans for two new elementary schools and a middle school are now up in the air.

Lester said, “My main goal is not dealing with the big issues right now,” such as a federal judge’s decision to halt about $20 million a year in state desegregation aid to the district. He said he is concerned with practical problems facing the district — getting classrooms ready for fall, and making sure students have textbooks and supplies.

“There’s a lot that hasn’t been done. There’s a lot of missing information,” he added.
“There are too many things lacking. The curriculum is not ready for fall. We want the kids to have textbooks,” he said.

“I’m grateful I had experience as high school principal,” which will help him determine what’s needed to get schools ready in August, he said.

Lester met key district managers — he called them his “cabinet” — to map strategy for the next school year.

“We’ve had our squabbles in the past,” he said, referring to frequent showdowns with teachers, who often boycotted classrooms when he was superintendent. But now, he said, he is focused on the future.
He had been with the district for 30 years, 15 of them as superintendent.

While superintendent in the 1980s and 1990s, Lester held meetings between the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers and school district officials, a practice that ended sometime after he retired. PACT members said the meetings were helpful.

When Lester was reminded of a headline in the first issue of The Leader in March 1987 — “Lester is optimistic on busing, pushes millage hike” — he said, “That’s right, we passed that millage.”
PCSSD voters have been reluctant to approve any millage increases since then.

The article also quoted Lester as saying, “Eventually, things will settle down, and we’ll have a good education system.”

Lester has been involved with the Jacksonville Education Foundation, whose supporters include former state Reps. Pat Bond and Mike Wilson, former Mayor Tommy Swaim, former Jacksonville Finance Director Paul Mushrush and others.

Fletcher said Lester would lead the district in the right direction and provide an “air of confidence we haven’t had in a long time.”

Fletcher said the state takeover and dissolving the district’s board signaled a “tremendous start, but it hasn’t gone far enough” toward the city getting its own school district.

Fletcher said he didn’t know when the city would get new schools. The district had promised to build two new elementary schools and a middle school next year.

Deb Roush, spokeswoman for the district, said before the takeover, Hopson’s plan was to carve out enough money from the budget to keep the facilities plan on track, which included improvements and new schools for Jacksonville. “But now it’s up to the state and what they decide,” Roush said.

After he retired from PCSSD as superintendent, Lester joined McPherson and Jacobson education consultants. The firm helped search for superintendents in Arkansas, but did not recommend Hopson for PCSSD superintendent.

Lester recently talked about problems in the district — mostly financial ones.

Lester doesn’t care much for the report that Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued in April criticizing the county schools for misspending hundreds of millions of dollars in state-funded desegregation money.

“I don’t remember any specific items that were supposed to be paid for with desegregation funding,” Lester told The Leader. “There was no money necessarily earmarked for certain items.”

He said the Office of Desegregation Monitoring audited the three county districts semiannually for several years and has found them in compliance with funding requirements.

Lester says as long as the county schools are under court supervision, they can say everything they do is to achieve integration.

Over the last two decades, the state Education Department has funneled about $1 billion to the county school districts to achieve integration.