Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TOP STORY >> Support for state takeover

Leader staff writer

The state takeover of the Pulaski County Special School District has received wide approval, but it could mean delaying construction of two new elementary schools and a middle school in Jacksonville that were supported by ousted Superintendent Dr. Charles Hopson.

The district had planned to spend $104 million on an elementary school and a middle school at the site of the old middle school, and a new elementary school outside the air base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson Elementary Schools.

“My entire focus,” Hopson said Tuesday, “was improving the district for the students. We developed an aggressive facilities plan, went to work on Jacksonville High School, and were trying to correct 10 years of poor practices.”

But state Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) applauded Hopson’s departure, saying, “Christmas came a few months late…It’s a great step in the right direction in leadership. This will hopefully allow the judge and the Department of Education to see fit to allow us (Jacksonville) to have our own district.”

Former state Rep. Mike Wilson, a strong supporter of an independent Jacksonville district, said, “I am very pleased that the governor, state board and (Education Commissioner) Tom Kimbrell all had the backbone to make the changes that were needed.”

“It’s good news for the community. Any improvement in the county school district is helpful to Jacksonville. I think it’s important to know that it’s taken years for the district to get to where it is now. It’s going to take a long time to fix it. Jacksonville shouldn’t expect an overnight change,” Wilson said.

Donna Humphries, a counselor at Sherwood Elementary, who has been battling with the district through a reverse-discrimination suit, said, “It’s been very emotional. This last year has been utter chaos.

“I’m dancing today. I’m so happy. These are people (the board) who have been doing the wrong thing and are retaliating against those who are trying to do the right thing,” she said.

A group of teachers at Jacksonville Elementary School said Tuesday that they hadn’t heard the news yet, but their concern was education, not what is happening at the central office.

Former board members Gloria Lawrence and Tom Stuthard of Sherwood both plan to run for the Pulaski County Special School District Board again whenever the state relinquishes control. Former board president Bill Vasquez did not return calls for comment.

Both Lawrence and Stuthard represented Sherwood.

Lawrence said she respects Kimbrell, who was responsible for the decision to take over the district Monday, release the superintendent and dissolve the board.

“I know it was a hard decision, but the right one,” Lawrence said.

She added that she is excited about Bobby Lester being appointed the interim superintendent. “He will get it going in the right direction again and make students the focus,” Lawrence said.

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

“We now have an excellent man at the helm,” he said.

Daniel Gray, a third-generation Jacksonville realtor and active member of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization who announced last week that he was running for the Pulaski County Special School District Board, agreed.

“Bobby Lester is a proven leader,” he said. “I think the state education department will put an end to the turmoil.”

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.

“A lot of things have happened very quickly…there are a lot of questions left to be answered,” the mayor said. “It’s way too early to project what’s next.”

Gray said there wouldn’t be school board elections in September, but he is ready to serve when needed and that the takeover is good for the city’s efforts toward getting an independent school district.

“I think this paves the way for further discussion,” he said.

Lawrence said she will continue to advocate for the district and when allowed to, will run again and do what she has done, which is support the teachers and students of Sherwood.

Lawrence, along with Stuthard, had only been on the board for eight months. “We worked hard to do the right things, but we couldn’t convince the rest of the board. Two votes were not enough,” she said.

Those two votes were the only ones who voted to dismiss Hopson during an executive session on the superintendent’s performance earlier this month.

Hopson said the focus was never about him or keeping the job. “I’ll get other opportunities, but the focus needs to be on the students of the district and making sure they have opportunities.”

He said when he came to the district less than a year ago, he knew it was a “high-risk” job and still had his home and family in Portland, Ore.

But the former superintendent, who already is getting calls on job possibilities, admitted there were problems.

“There’s no secret that we had plenty of distractions,” he said.

Those distractions included employee fraud and theft, charges of nepotism, a raking over the coals by the Legislative Audit Committee which criticized erratic spending by the district, board and the superintendent, an attempted bribe scheme involving two board members and a high school principal, a $5 million civil lawsuit by one board member against another and a lawsuit by a deputy superintendent against the district and the superintendent.

Overall, though, Hopson was encouraged by the progress the district had made in the past year.

But, perhaps, a PCSSD employee working at Jacksonville Elementary said it best Tuesday, “It shouldn’t have had to happen.”

Leader staff writer Sarah Campbell contributed to this report.