Monday, December 24, 2012

TOP STORY >> New district would get more aid

Leader staff writer

An independent Jacksonville school district would spend more money per student than Cabot if the area’s 35-year effort to split from the Pulaski County Special School District is successful, according to Daniel Gray of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps.

Gray spoke to the Jacksonville Lions Club at its meeting last week at the Bar-B-Que Shack on Hwy. 161.

Not only will an independent school district get a larger portion of state funds based on the wealth-index formula, declining enrollment figures mean fewer students will get a larger piece of the pie, according to Gray.

He said a new feasibility study about whether the city should form its own school district is “95 percent” complete.

“All the numbers look good,” Gray noted.

He said the Education Corps would hold a public meeting in February or March, after the report is finished.

The next step in the process is to ask U.S. District Judge Price Mar-shall, who is presiding over the decades-old desegregation case, to approve Jacksonville to hold an election in which voters would decide whether to separate from PCSSD.

Gray predicted that most residents would agree to split from the fiscally distressed PCSSD.

He added that the Education Corps also plans to ask the judge to clarify the rules for gathering the 4,000 signatures needed to put the measure on a ballot.

He said, based on the projected wealth-index formula, the state would contribute 55 percent – $55 million of a $100 million building project — toward repairing or constructing new facilities for a stand-alone district in Jacksonville.

The state only has to give 3 percent to PCSSD for construction because it has pockets, such as Maumelle, where residents earn higher incomes.

Gray said, over the last decade and excluding recent improvements, Jacksonville and north Pulaski schools have received 3 percent of PCSSD’s capital investments while having about 33 percent of the students in the district.

He added that declining enrollment has been an issue over that same time period.

“Ten, 11, or 12 years ago, we were about the same number of kids in our schools (as Cabot). They’ve grown. We’ve declined. We chose Cabot because it’s the nearest. That’s where people migrate to, move to when they go,” Gray said.

He said state law requires that a new independent school district have at least 4,000 students and several proponents were worried about that.

But the Jacksonville and North Pulaski areas had an enrollment of more than 4,500 students this year, Gray said.

The state took over the fiscally distressed PCSSD in June 2011. The school board was disbanded and the superintendent was fired.

In April, 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 in order to be released from court supervision and get out of fiscal distress.

Gray explained, “For the first time since 1978, Jacksonville/North Pulaski citizens, the Pulaski County Special School District, the Arkansas Department of Education all agree that a new school district should be formed. This is the first time we’ve all been on the same page.”

An election is one of the four ways an independent school district can be established.

Gray told the Lions Club, “The Education Corps is here to pick the ball up, revitalize and try to capture the momentum. This time we’re trying to communicate better with the public. The best thing you can do is to go to our website and sign up for our newsletter.”

The website is

Gray said PCSSD officials recently requested that the district be declared unitary, but the judge said no. He told them he couldn’t make a ruling until a hearing is held.

That hearing could happen in August or September, Gray said.

He said teachers’ salaries in an independent school district would have to be competitive, but wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the school board that will be elected would increase the pay for teachers in the new district.

Gray didn’t say whether he would run for the board, but he joked about his campaign for the PCSSD school board. Gray ran for the office just weeks before the state takeover.

Gray began his presentation to the Lions Club with a history of the area’s effort to get it own school district.

He said it all started with a 1978 feasibility study.

In 2001, Pat Bond, a state representative at the time, sponsored House Bill 1882. The bill became Act 1673. The law outlines the steps necessary for the creation of a new school district. After that, an executive committee was formed and an updated feasibility study was done.

The committee approved a plan for the district boundaries that it felt minimized disruption in attendance zones, decreased transportation costs, maintained racial balance and had natural boundaries.

A petition signed by 10 percent of the voters in the proposed district was completed. More than 4,000 validated signatures supporting the effort to separate from PCSSD were collected.

The petition, signatures, the study and a map of the boundaries were submitted to the state Board of Education and the Attorney General’s office.

An election date was set for Sept. 16, 2003.

PCSSD filed a lawsuit to halt the election. The judge, Bill Wilson, ruled that a more extensive study on a state level was necessary.

Wilson’s decision was appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis and the appeal was denied.

A third study was completed in 2006. A fourth study was completed in 2008.

Gray said all four studies found that Jacksonville could financially support its own district and should separate from PCSSD.

In 2008, the PCSSD school board voted unanimously to give Jacksonville and North Pulaski an independent district.

Negotiations with Sher-wood, which doesn’t want the new district to include any schools within its city limits, wrapped up in 2009. Northwood Middle School and Cato Elementary were removed from the boundaries that had been suggested previously.

Immediately after approving the new boundaries in 2009, the school board voted 4-3 to suspend negotiations with Jacksonville and North Pulaski until the federal court declares PCSSD unitary.

Gray said, “This move was viewed by many as a punitive step for efforts to hinder their bond issue of $80 million. Over $100 million was used to build those two facilities. That is Maumelle High School and Sylvan Hills Middle School.” A new district won’t take on that debt when it detaches, he said.