Wednesday, November 14, 2012

TOP STORY >> Group finds support for new district

Leader staff writer

Several of the nearly 400 residents who attended Tuesday’s public meeting at the Jacksonville Community Center voiced their support for separating from the Pulaski County Special School District as soon as next year.

Voters could decide whether the city should split from PCSSD if U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in the school desegregation case, approves the study and gives Jacksonville permission to have an election on the issue.

James Bolden, a minister and former school board member who was recently elected alderman, compared splitting from PCSSD to a divorce, explaining that details would have to be worked out in negotiations.

He said, “We’re probably going to get the better part of the deal because we’re going to be free.”

The next step in the process of separation is to finish updating the 2008 feasibility study so a special election can be held, according to Daniel Gray of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps, which hosted the meeting to rally support from the community.

The study should be completed by next month and another public meeting will be held in January, he said.

Gray said, based on the wealth-index formula, the state would contribute 65 percent – $65 million of a $100 million building project — toward repairing or constructing new facilities for a stand-alone district in Jacksonville.

The state gives only 3 percent to PCSSD for construction, which is about the amount Jacksonville received for construction in the past decade.

Gray said state law says students for a new district must come from the existing district. So, the new district can only be made up of PCSSD schools.

The proposed Jacksonville district includes North Pulaski High School, Jacksonville High School, Jacksonville Middle School, and Bayou Meto, Arnold Drive, Tolleson, Adkins, Taylor, Pinewood and Dupree elementary schools.

He said later parents could transfer their children to the Jacksonville school district from Lighthouse if they choose to do so.

A Jacksonville district would have about 4,500 students and would save PCSSD hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs associated with the city’s aging school buildings.

Jacksonville NAACP president Ivory Tillman asked if the independent district would have to pay for an $80 million bond issue to build the new Maumelle High School.

Gray said that debt would not carry over, but a new district in Jacksonville would take on its portion — 14 percent — of the rest of PCSSD’s debts.

Resident John Davis asked how long it would take for the city to get its own district. Gray said, “We hope in spring or summer of next year.” But he added that it could be later than that, depending on whether the judge would like to have a hearing about the study.

Another resident asked if the Lighthouse charter schools would be included in the new district.

Mike Wilson, an attorney and a former state senator who was instrumental in bringing the charter school here, said, “It’s important for the community to support all choices. Competition between various methods of schooling is nothing but good.”

Resident Tracy Tell questioned how the new district would deal with personality conflicts that have plagued the PCSSD board in the past.

Bolden said the PCSSD board had too many factions fighting for different cities.

He explained that everyone elected to the school board for a new district would work together for Jacksonville.

Mary Spann, a retired PCSSD teacher, asked how a new district would affect the salaries of employees at Jacksonville schools.

Gray said a lot of that would be worked out later, but that “salaries will have to be competitive.”

Gray apologized for not being able to fully answer all questions. He explained, “We’re starting from scratch,” and that some issues would have to be addressed at a later stage.

He said, “A lot of the benefit will be local pride,” after someone asked whether Jacksonville would be reimbursed for the “obvious neglect” it has experienced at the hands of PCSSD.

Patrick Wilson, an attorney who has been helping the Education Corps, said, “The big difference is that PCSSD supports this and there wasn’t leadership from the top tier of the state in 2003. If there was ever a time for a federal judge to boost this effort, it is now.”

Wilson also said, “The best way for PCSSD to clean up their facilities is to get rid of them here,” because that is what the district has to do to come out of court supervision. In May, PCSSD’s lawyers asked the federal judge presiding over the desegregation case to create a separate Jacksonville district.

The motion was in response to the state attorney general’s March petition requesting that the state be relieved of its obligation to provide about $70 million a year in desegregation funding.

The PCSSD lawyers said dividing the 17,000-student, 760-square-mile district would help it achieve unitary status and get out of fiscal distress.

A resident asked if there was a backup plan, in case Jacksonville does not succeed in the effort to get its own school district.

Gray said, “We aren’t waiting to improve. They’ve (the schools) have been getting people involved.”

He complimented second-year Jacksonville High School principal Henry Anderson. “The culture is changing. A lot of the problem is perception,” Gray said.

A student asked if the courses at Jacksonville schools would change when an independent school district is formed.

Gray said courses in a new Jacksonville district would better meet the community’s needs.

The Education Corps has hired Dr. Winston Simpson, a former superintendent of the Bryant and Fayetteville districts, to update a 2008 feasibility study so that a special election can be held for voters to decide whether the city should split from PCSSD.