Tuesday, February 14, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Can anyone save district?

The Pulaski County Special School District’s financial future is more precarious than ever. It’s been placed in financial distress again, despite the state Education Department’s takeover last June, when it fired the school board and the superintendent and promised honest bookkeeping.

The latest blow came on Monday, when the state Board of Education placed the district on life support once more as the district’s finances worsened.

PCSSD would have found itself in a $13.3 million hole this year but for a one-time infusion of $15 million in property taxes. The district will almost certainly extract huge concessions from its teachers and staff.

It will take a real effort to save a district from the brink. Hundreds of employees will lose their jobs. Desegregation funds will dry up, adding more woes to the district’s finances.

The only improvement we’ve seen in the district is the disbanding of a dysfunctional school board that has hindered progress for a generation.

It turns out the Education Department hasn’t had any more success cutting expenses than the previous administration. PCSSD must cut $13 million from next year’s budget or face almost certain extinction — perhaps absorbed into the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts. That outcome could eventually lead to an independent school district in Jacksonville, although it’s hard to see that happening with continued state supervision, protracted court battles and uncertainty about how such a new district would get its financing.

You have to root for the Pulaski County district’s survival even if you don’t have any kids in its schools. But can it survive while its tax base crumbles and parents move to neighboring districts? We’ve been asking that question for 25 years, and the answer still eludes some of the smartest minds in education.

The district still has a shot at success with the right leadership and outstanding principals like Henry Anderson, who wants to return Jacksonville High School to its glory days, when it was one of the best schools in the state and its graduates went to top schools all over the country.

Here’s hoping the district succeeds in its negotiations with its teachers and other employees and balances its books. We’re wishing interim Superintendent Jerry Guess and his hard-working staff success as they try to turn the struggling district around.

The alternative is prolonged state supervision, continued academic failure and possible consolidation. Patrons of the Pulaski County Special School District deserve better.