Wednesday, October 26, 2011

TOP STORY >> PCSSD still struggling, Guess says

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District faces many challenges, but it is ready to meet them, Dr. Jerry Guess told the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.

Superintendent Guess said goals for the 730-square-mile district with more than 17,000 students include achieving unitary status because desegregation funding won’t last, implementing the common core curriculum, changing the culture in all schools to promote leadership and academic performance and addressing the causes of the district’s fiscal distress.

Guess said managing the district is difficult because it covers more land than Little Rock’s 97 square miles and North Little Rock’s 29 square miles,  but PCSSD has far fewer students than Little Rock. He also said property in Little Rock is assessed at $3.2 billion compared to PCSSD’s $2.3 billion and North Little Rock’s $706 million.

He emphasized that the district cannot continue to operate in the red with declining revenue. There will be no more meetings in expensive hotels, and traveling out-of-state won’t happen unless necessary or there is grant money to cover the cost.

Projected carryover for the district’s 2011 fiscal year was $9 million, but the year closed out at $2 million, a decline of $7 million.

The district will look at trimming its teaching, administrative and district staff, Guess said, and cutting the budget wherever it can without losing anything it needs to do to serve the public.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get things done. You have to have some concern for efficiency in what you do,” he said. “You have to strike a balance between serving the public and being efficient.”

Guess said one anomaly concerning PCSSD’s budgeting is that is receives $10,782 per student. The district has the 32nd highest per student expenditures, but ranks second and third in having the most students and staff.

He said operating PCSSD’s 24 elementary schools with enrollments ranging from 160 to 729 efficiently is one of the district’s challenges, but it is easier to manage its secondary schools, where that enrollment range, from 384 to 900, isn’t as broad.

The state Education Department took over the district in June, dissolving the school board and dismissing then-superintendent Charles Hopson. Guess was appointed to the position in July.

High absenteeism in the district is a serious problem. On a typical day, some 1,200 students are absent, which is too high. He wants parents to become involved in their children’s education.

Guess said, “There is no greater challenge than support from home and the significance of attendance.”

He acknowledged that PCSSD serves several unique communities. He said it’s no secret that Jacksonville wants its own school district. Sherwood wants out of PCSSD, too, and he is sure Maumelle could be talking about splitting too.

Guess said he understood, but it’s very difficult if not impossible to discuss severing the district right now.