Friday, June 01, 2012

TOP STORY >> State could run PCSSD until 2014, Guess says

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District could remain under state control beyond two years if the financially distressed district continues to struggle.

Superintendent Jerry Guess made this announcement at Jacksonville High School on Tuesday to kick off a meeting about redrawing school board zones, which has to be done now according to federal law, even though elections won’t be held before the end of next year. The state took over the district in May 2011.

Guess said, “Another question that’s been asked is when are we going to return to an elected school board situation. The legislation that is authorizing the fiscal-distress status of the district and resulted in the dissolution of the board calls for at least a two-year period where (Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell) will … represent the people of the district.

“Now there is a possibility, I understand, of a third year because in some cases where districts have struggled to be able to survive at the end of two years, there was a third-year extension,” Guess said.

He continued, “Right now what I would say is that the district could return to an elected board at the end of the second year. It could be extended to a third year. It depends on the situation, on how successful we are in our efforts to correct the fiscal errors in the district.”


The law also requires after the census that every school board zone have a starting population within 5 percent of the mean average of the zones in that district by Aug. 1.

Legally, the district can have a five-member board with or without two at-large seats, or it can have a seven-member board. The district choose a seven-member board because a five-member board didn’t resolve the issue of population being evenly distributed, Guess said.

Therefore, the average population for the zones is 21,768.

Guess said his next deadline is June 10 because that is when he has to make a recommendation to Kimbrell.

The superintendent showed about a dozen residents at the meeting several maps drawn up by Jeff Runder of Metroplan. Guess said making these maps is “not costing us a thing.”

The district’s preferred option shows Jacksonville schools, North Pulaski schools and Sylvan Hills/Sherwood schools in three different zones, and the district’s population of 152,855 is divided into seven zones.

In Zone 7 are Dupree Elementary, Jacksonville High, Jacksonville Middle, Pinewood Elementary, Taylor Elementary, Adkins Pre-K and Harris Elementary.

Zone 6 has Northwood Middle, North Pulaski High, Cato Elementary, Arnold Drive Elementary, Tolleson Elementary and Bayou Meto Elementary.

In Zone 4 are Sylvan Hills Elementary, Sylvan Hills Middle, Sylvan Hills High, Oakbrooke Elementary, Clinton Elementary and Sherwood Elementary.

There is also Zone 5, which doesn’t include any schools. It represents students in the northern part of the county between Zone 6 and Zone 3.

Zone 3 are Pine Forest Elementary, Crystal Hill Elementary, Oak Grove Elementary, Maumelle High and Maumelle Middle.

The largest difference is the population of 21,082 in Zone 1, southeast Pulaski County, and the population of 22,768 in Zone 7, but that meets legal requirements.

Approximately 9,927 residents in southeast Pulaski County now share one board member, but a single board member represents 34,361 residents in the western part of the county.

Guess said, “If you’re out of whack, you have to fix it, and we’re way out of whack here.”


The main feedback Guess got on the zones at the meeting were questions about how the possibility of Jacksonville splitting from PCSSD and getting an independent school district factored into this decision.

The superintendent said the city would have to decide how to zone itself in that case, but the rezoning being discussed now is a separate issue from whether Jacksonville will break off from the district.

“Should we do this if there might be a Jacksonville school district? I’ve already had that question from some people who live here. Do we need to proceed with this kind of reorganization of the schools? The answer to that is absolutely yes,” Guess said.

“That proposal regarding the future of a Jacksonville school district is really one that will be settled in a federal court. That will be up to address at a later date. We have to have this issue settled before that,” he continued.

“I hope you get it. That’s what we’re trying to do. At least we’ve got it in front of judge,” Guess added.

Attorney Ben Rice said at the end of the meeting that the rezoning plan sounded fine, but he told Guess, “Your first priority should be a Jacksonville School District.”

Dannakay Duggar, who was wearing a T-shirt she made voicing support for an independent Jacksonville school district, brought another point to the superintendent’s attention.

She said Guess should identify the separation of Jacksonville schools and North Pulaski as a concern because she is Jacksonville resident who attended North Pulaski High School and feels they should be grouped together.

The superintendent explained that the two couldn’t be in the same zone because of the large population in the area. Without those being split up, the district wouldn’t be able to achieve its goal of “one man, one vote,” which means each board member has about the same number of constituents.

Another woman mentioned her frustration at living in one zone but having children attending a school in a different zone and not being able to vote for the board member who represents their school.

Guess said, “We had people who came to the meeting at Maumelle High who lived in Zone 3. She was in the tail end of the third zone, but her kids attended the Robinson schools (in a different zone).

“That’s going to happen sometimes. You do the best you can to draw the lines with some reasonableness, but you’re never going to solve all these problems. If you put North Pulaski High and Jacksonville High in the same zone there would be so much population it wouldn’t satisfy the (legal requirements).”

Other priorities concerning the redrawing of zones are to preserve minority representation on the school board and put high schools in the same zone with their feeder schools.

For example, Northwood and Cato are feeder schools for North Pulaski High School because most of their students end up attending North Pulaski when they reach high-school age.

Guess said the preferred option satisfies all three objectives.

One concern voiced about the preferred option is that the board member chosen to represent Zone 5 would align with a particular school because that zone doesn’t include any schools.

The superintendent didn’t disagree with that being a possible problem, but he said the Zone 5 board member has just as much of an opportunity to favor one school over another as any other board member.