Friday, January 20, 2012

TOP STORY >> PCSSD says it has funds for projects

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District on Thursday fielded questions from the public about desegregation funding and new construction as it presented $7 million in 75 facility improvement projects.

Of those 75, half the projects concern local schools.

The list includes roof work at Northwood Middle School, Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School; intercom and bell systems at JHS and Sylvan Hills High School; drainage at Sherwood Elementary School’s media center, the rear of Taylor Elementary School and at SHHS in front of the gym and behind the band room; ADA restrooms at Sherwood Elementary; adding parking at Taylor; plumbing replacement at Northwood; bathroom renovations and hallway paint rework at Oakbrooke Elementary School; bathroom renovations at Pinewood Elementary School; stadium lighting fixtures at JHS; stage lighting and controls upgrade at JHS and SHHS; a gas line at JHS; SHHS classrooms in the old shop and portable moves; door replacements at the JHS field house, Sylvan Hills Elementary, SHHS and NPHS; replacement of Cato Elementary School’s HVAC system; walk-in freezers at Sylvan Hills Elementary, Warren Dupree Elementary School, Jacksonville Middle School and SHHS; bleacher replacement at Northwood; repairs to Cato’s parking lot; locker replacement at Northwood; demolition of select parts of the old Sylvan Hills Middle School; window replacement at Northwood; installing a wood floor at the NPHS and Northwood gyms; entry steps and sidewalk at JHS; renovation of the field house at SHHS; a facelift — carpet, paint, furniture, ceiling, lighting and more — to media centers at SHHS, Northwood and Jacksonville Middle; repairs to Jacksonville Middle’s field house; replacement of the NPHS auditorium, and HVAC upgrades at Taylor, SHHS and JHS.

The theme for the projects is “safe, warm and dry.”

The money is coming from refinancing debt and savings leftover from other projects, Derek Scott, chief operating officer for PCSSD, said after the meeting. The first job on the list: is replacement of the roof at Fuller Middle School. That will cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

Jacksonville resident Rizelle Aaron asked during the question and answer section, “Will those desegregation funds be used primarily in low-income areas to build new schools?”

Superintendent Jerry Guess responded, “I think we can achieve unitary status. We’re going to use that money to make schools safe, warm and dry. I’m asking my friends at the state, ‘Does anyone have answers?’ Can we pass a millage for new facilities? I don’t think voters would do that in this economy.”

Most of the projects on the list were for schools in low-income, predominately black areas and Guess said the district was “filtering the building fund money through a desegregation lens.”

Cindy Holmes, a teacher at Robinson Middle School in Little Rock, said, “Have we shelved any plans to build any new facilities?”

Scott spearheaded the presentation and started by saying, “It’s no secret we’re fiscally distressed.”

That was his response to those questions. Guess stepped in to answer with, “What we are trying to do now is fix the buildings we have now. Our goal is to keep these buildings in the best shape we can for our students.”

Guess added, “You (Holmes) might be a good person to start a millage campaign.”

About 20 people showed up for the meeting. Scott told them the district had at least eight roofs with significant leaks.

“We have a couple of campuses that have drainage problems where kids are walking through two to three inches of water. We need to fix that drainage.”

He added that temporarily dealing with such problems isn’t working. “We’ve got a lot of this bubblegum and Band-Aid we need to fix,” Scott said.

Bathrooms are another concern at several schools.

“Teachers are living it. Even when they’re cleaned, they smell,” he explained.

Other issues include inadequate security lighting, plumbing and heating that needs replaced, tile flooring “popping up,” flooded playgrounds and rotted doors.

He said heating and ventilation was one area that will be less of a priority. “We were fortunate last year to have federal stimulus money, so we’re pretty healthy there,” Scott explained.

“We knew the major issues we were having problems with. If there’s something we’re not seeing we’re open to suggestions.”

“Regina George, another Robinson teacher, said her school has mold in every classroom.

Scott said, “If the school has mold, that’s not a project we need to wait on.”

A teacher at Sylvan Hills High School said the toilets have been fixed there, but the dilapidated doors were left alone.

Another attendee told Scott that some ceiling tiles at North Pulaski High School are missing.

Holmes asked about temperature control in classrooms. “Kids are wearing coats all through class, and I’m wearing long johns. That’s why I got a career, so I don’t have to work outside,” she joked.

A teacher at Baker Elementary in Little Rock said, “We are grateful for the drainage that was taken care of last year,” but suggested the district put an awning on a portable building that doesn’t have one. Third-graders are getting drenched waiting to get into the classroom, she explained.

Scott responded, “First, we’ve got to make sure they’re dry once they’re in the school.”

Someone asked if doing the improvements gets the district closer to Plan 2000. Scott said it does.

“I’m excited about getting some money out of the building fund and doing some stuff. I’m excited and thankful to the boss (Guess) and Mr. (Bill) Goff (PCSSD’s chief financial officer) for finding us some money.”

Guess explained after the meeting that the building fund has to be used for these kinds of projects. He said the district is being financially conservative in several ways.

Those ways include reducing staff by not filling the positions of employees who retire, asking the state Education Department to evaluate cuts to the cafeteria program, establishing a new benefits plan that will save the district several hundred thousand dollars a year and implementing a new bell schedule that will save PCSSD at least $500,000.

The district also had a one-time windfall of $15 million because of the change in the legal requirement to defer pullback money to the following fiscal year.

PCSSD is required by law to submit a facilities master plan to the state. The source of funding for the projects is based on local funds.