Wednesday, May 02, 2012

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville closer to its own district


Proponents of a stand-alone Jacksonville school district received an unexpected boost Monday when lawyers for the Pulaski County Special School District asked the presiding judge in the decades-old school desegregation case to create a separate Jacksonville district.

The district’s motion was in response to the state attorney general’s March petition to U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. asking for the state to be relieved of its obligation to provide about $70 million a year in desegregation funding.

“I’ve been hoping and praying that (the district’s response) would inject the Jacksonville scenario in,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher. “I’m tickled that they did.

“It brings us to the table, which is what we’ve wanted all along, for our voices to be heard. We can show that we can take care of our situation.”

“It’s exciting,” according to Daniel Gray, who is active in efforts to detach a Jacksonville district from the PCSSD.

“It’s not the Jacksonville people asking for it (this time), it’s the school district saying that’s what is best for them,” Gray said. “Hopefully, this will be part of the end of desegregation case.”

Bishop James Bolden said, “I think it’s a great thing, long overdue. We need our own district to help us grow. Personally, I’m tired of seeing people move to Cabot and other places.

“We’re excited about it. A brand new district would be perfect (as a solution that would end the desegregation case and fiscal distress).”

The PCSSD lawyers argued that dividing the huge district in two would help the district achieve unitary status as well as to emerge from fiscal distress.

The desegregation money, which now totals about $1 billion since 1989, is split among the Pulaski County Special, Little Rock and North Little Rock School Districts. While it is not limited to direct desegregation uses, the intent is to fund magnet schools M-to-M transfers and provide transportation, all to help achieve racial balance.

“Unless everybody’s willing to sit down and talk realistically at the table about a settlement of this, we have no choice but to be opposed in the short term to the termination (of the state desegregation revenues),” said PCSSD attorney Sam Jones. “We still have the expense side.”

PCSSD also asked that the state phase out desegregation funding over eight years instead of immediately and also asked Marshall to order the state to work with the district to “come up with a facilities plan that would gain unitary status,” Superintendent Jerry Guess said Tuesday.

“We are asking him to consider our proposal, phase down services over eight years, separate Jacksonville and regain unitary status within the first three years,” Guess said.

Jones said the Jacksonville aspect of the case had been evolving under Guess’ administration, which is looking at every financial aspect of the district’s operation in light of its fiscal distress designation.

“They revisited the Jackson-ville studies and decided the area embraced was probably better off to attain its own school district because of financial issues,” Jones said.

He said the plan wouldn’t provide direct financial aid to the PCSSD, but that it would eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs associated with Jacksonville’s old and decrepit school buildings.

Guess said the two districts could run much more efficiently than one. Currently, the 17,000-student district is spread across about 760 square miles in Pulaski County.

Guess said a Jacksonville district would have about 4,500 students, while the PCSSD would be left with about 12,500.

One advantage of splitting off Jacksonville from Pulaski County is the amount of money the state would contribute toward building and repairing facilities. Using the wealth-index formula, the state would contribute 3 percent of the cost of PCSSD buildings because it’s in an affluent part of the state. That’s a $3 million match on a $100 million project. But the wealth index in the poorer Jacksonville area is about 55 percent or 60 percent, according to Guess, meaning the state would contribute $55 million on a $100 million building project.

The boundaries for the proposed Jacksonville district are those that the PCSSD school board approved in about 2009, Jones said.

According to Guess, 10 schools would comprise the new district: North Pulaski High School, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville Middle School, and Bayou Meto, Arnold Drive, Tolleson, Adkins, Taylor, Pinewood and Dupree elementary schools.

The district is currently in fiscal distress for bad policies and management and also for having a declining fund balance.

As a result, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell last year dissolved the school board and fired first-year Superintendent Charles Hopson. Kimbrell be-came a one-man school board.

But because Kimbrell is a party to the desegregation proceedings, Guess did not consult with nor inform him of his decision to include the Jacksonville detachment as part of the district’s response to the state’s motion to cut off desegregation funding.

When Guess agreed to take the job as superintendent, he told Kimbrell that he had two goals — to bring the district out of fiscal distress and to extricate it from the desegregation agreement and court encumbrances.

Guess said he arrived at the conclusion that everyone involved would be better off by splitting the district into two. Others involved in the discussion were the district’s attorneys, Jones of Mitchell Williams and Allan Roberts of Camden, financial consultant Don Stewart and Bill Goff, the district’s chief financial officer.

Guess said he also referred to reports prepared several years ago, one by Stewart, and the other by William Gordon and Associates, in arriving at his conclusion.