Wednesday, January 23, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Is it the end for PCSSD?

The state Education Department will supervise the Pulaski County Special School District for three more years if the state Legislature extends the current law from two years to five years of state control.

According to an exclusive report in The Leader last weekend by veteran staff writer John Hofheimer, the state Education Department and the district’s interim superintendent claim PCSSD is still too sick to stand alone. Let’s just say the district is on life support.

According to state law, if PCSSD is not out of fiscal distress by July, the state can disband the district, annex it to another or move various schools to other districts. The state Education Department would rather wait three more years before it decides to break the district up once and for all. You won’t hear much sympathy for preserving the Pulaski County district in the Legislature or anywhere else.

State law now allows only two years of supervision by the Education Department, but Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell of Cabot told us he will ask the Legislature to give him three more years — a total of five — to fix ailing school districts in fiscal distress. There are three such districts around the state.

Besides PCSSD, Dollarway and Helena-West Helena school districts are in fiscal distress and being run by the state, with Kimbrell acting as a one-man school board. Even after two years of state oversight, it doesn’t appear that any of those districts will solve their financial problems at the end of the school year, as had been hoped, especially the Pulaski County district.

Kimbrell and Jerry Guess, now in his second year as acting superintendent, believe their work is far from over.

“At this point, I’m not convinced the district is ready to be turned loose,” Kimbrell said.

Here’s one state bureaucrat who has earned his pay, although we would prefer local control of our schools, especially in Jacksonville. The Cabot, Beebe and Lonoke districts are doing just fine without the state breathing down their necks. Sherwood, too, is doing well, but its future remains uncertain if Pulaski County is broken up.

A death sentence for the county district might make it easier for Jacksonville to end up with its own district, depending on when the state Education Department releases PCSSD from oversight. The state should disband the county district anytime before 2016 and move its various parts into Little Rock, North Little Rock and Jacksonville.

Five years of state supervision is not exactly a rosy scenario, although it does improve Jacksonville’s chances of getting its own district. Kimbrell said breaking up PCSSD won’t necessarily lead to the creation of a new Jacksonville district. The courts have the final say on that matter, but that’s what both the state and district have said is the eventual goal: Let Jacksonville start with a clean slate. The other areas of PCSSD would do just fine in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Kimbrell told Hofheimer that in addition to asking legislators to amend state law to give the state five years to correct fiscal problems at troubled school districts, he would seek other changes, such as a law requiring the training of school board members in proper administration of their offices.

The PCSSD school board, before it was disbanded almost two years ago, was sadly lacking in leadership. The board was divided between pro- and anti-union members. Neither faction knew how to help run a school district or hire competent superintendents.

PCSSD failed to adhere to a good set of fiscal policies and procedures as required by the state Bureau of Legislative Audit. What’s more, the troubled district has not built a healthy and sustainable budget carryover in several years. It’s amazing they didn’t shut down the district a long time ago.

In 2011, a state audit uncovered serious fiscal problems at PCSSD, but there’s no reason to expect much progress since then. A new audit is being reviewed and could be published as early as Feb. 13, according to Larry Hunter, deputy legislative auditor for educational institutions.

The likelihood of the district losing $20 million a year in state desegregation funding will complicate the district’s financial problems, Kimbrell said.

He is hoping that when the state does stop its $20 million infusion of desegregation money to the district, the money will be phased out over at least two or three years. Otherwise, expect the district’s finances to worsen.