Friday, March 22, 2013

TOP STORY >> PCSSD needs law to survive

Leader senior staff writer

The state Education Department would have to consolidate, annex or reconstitute the Pulaski County Special School District after June 30 unless the existing law is amended to allow state control of districts in distress for longer than the two years currently permitted.

The Education Department has proposed changes — chief among them extending to five years the length of time it can take over and run a district found to be in fiscal, educational or facilities distress. PCSSD and Helena-West Helena districts would be the most immediate beneficiaries of such a change.

That law is subtitled: “To amend provisions of law concerning academic, fiscal and facilities distress of public schools and school districts; and to declare an emergency.”

Sponsored by state Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, HB 1770 lengthens to five years the time the state can run a school or school district designated as being in fiscal, academic or facility distress.

Perry’s bill passed the House on March 14 by a vote of 89-1 and is currently in the Senate Education Committee, where it is slated to be for discussion Monday.

Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell has said he would not turn the district back over to local control in its current condition, which would be the only other choice.

Twenty-five of the state’s 30 senators are listed as co-sponsoring the bill being shepherded by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, so barring unforeseen circumstances, the bill seems headed for passage and the state will have three more years to bring PCSSD out of fiscal distress.

Perry’s bill is just one of a myriad of proposals the Legislature is pondering that could affect Arkansans and, in this case, it hits pretty close to home.

Legislators are negotiating some of the finer points of expanding by 250,000 working class Arkansans the rolls of health-care insurance largely paid for by the Medicaid expansion provision of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

A local drink option would allow residents of dry areas like Jacksonville’s Gray Township to vote the areas wet. Going wet would mean restaurants could serve alcoholic beverages without a private club license and convenience and grocery stores could sell beer and wine. The option would not allow liquor stores in the areas.

The health-care expansion “should be rolled out in about a week,” according to state Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy. “We still have a lot to do, especially on the (health insurance) exchange side,” he said, but “I think we have a good dialogue (with) the governor.

“I don’t think there’s a lot left to work out, but there’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “It’s monumental, it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Dismang, who has worked closely with House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, says he’s not sure the health insurance expansion is linked directly to tax cuts, but a tax bill is waiting to come through committee. Among proposed tax cuts are those to capital gains, energy credits to businesses, cuts to farmers and income-tax rate reductions.

State Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, has sponsored a bill to move school elections from September to November, when general elections are held. That would save money on elections, but opponents say it would make it more difficult to pass local school millage increases.

It appears that although there are no documented cases of individual election fraud, lawmakers — particularly Republicans — have successfully passed a voter ID law that opponents think will make it more difficult for old folks and poor people to vote.

Under the current law, the state has only two years to straighten out problems with schools or districts in distress, and this problem is simply too big to fix in such a short period of time, according to PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess.

Kimbrell appointed Guess after the state took over the fiscally distressed district and fired the superintendent and disbanded the school board.

The new law would grant the education commissioner broad powers. He would only have to follow the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public School Employee Fair Hearing Act.

Right now, PCSSD is being sued by its teachers’ and support staff’s unions for abrogating their contracts.

The new law would allow the commissioner to turn control of a school or district back over to a superintendent and school board if all the deficiencies are corrected. If they are mostly corrected after two years, the commissioner may appoint a committee of district residents to help guide the district until it’s ready to be self sufficient.

PCSSD has been in fiscal distress three times in five years, and Helena-West Helena twice. Guess said they were returned too quickly to the boards. He explained that problems still need to be resolved and the culture of the district needs to change.

“You have to build capacity (to govern well),” according to Phyllis Stewart, Kimbrell’s chief of staff.

The intent is not to turn operation back to the same board members who caused or allowed the problems in the first place.


The state needs control long enough “to institute new accepted practices so a new elected board won’t overturn changes and kick (the district) back into fiscal distress,” Guess said.

At the end of five years, if the district or school has not corrected all aspects of its distress, the state may remain in control only if the process “was impeded by external forces beyond the control of the school or district.”

Otherwise, it’s back to annex, consolidate or reconstitute.

A student in a school designated as being in academic distress may transfer to another district that is not in academic distress.

Guess’ one-year contract expires June 30, but he said if he’s offered a new one for the 2013-14 school year he’d be inclined to sign on.

“There’s a lot of exciting things going on in the district,” he said. “We’re working hard on unitary status and need to come up with some sort of phase down for desegregation money when the district is judged unitary.

“That would allow us to operate like any other district in Arkansas. I’m chasing it hard.”