Tuesday, April 02, 2013

TOP STORY >> Date closer for kickoff of new district

Leader staff writer

The time is right for Jacksonville to have its own district as soon as this fall. That was the message that Dr. Walter Simpson, Daniel Gray and members of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps delivered to more than 200 people who attended a Tuesday night meeting at the community center.

The local education group had Simpson brief the crowd on his 55-page feasibility study of Jacksonville breaking away from the Pulaski County Special School District and his study that echoed what five other previous studies have said: Jacksonville has the community support, the tax base, and revenue to support its own school district without upsetting any of the desegregation issues being monitored by the federal court.

Starting off his presentation, Simpson said he worked in PCSSD as a teacher in 1966 and the district was in disarray then. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

Gray asked the residents to sign a petition and to also help gather signatures showing the state school board that Jacksonville was ready, willing and able.

According to state requirements, the city has to present petitions with at least 2,000 signatures (10 percent of the registered voters within the boundaries of the new district). The petition will ask the state board in June to go before federal Judge D. Price Marshall and ask him to give Jacksonville the approval to hold a special election.

Former Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien, who is a member of the local education group pushing for the district, explained that the steps sound convoluted but because the Pulaski County Special School District is under federal monitoring, the federal courts must give approval.

O’Brien said the city was at this point back in 2003, but the PCSSD board was against the city and took the city to court, where the judge said no to an election, even though the city was just weeks away from voting.

“This time we are going to the judge before setting the election in motion,” O’Brien explained.

Once the judge says the city can hold an election, the question on the ballot will be a simple “yes or no” question: Does the city want its own school district?

Gray said it is the education group’s hope that there will be enough signatures on the petition to present it to the state Board of Education at its June meeting.

The feasibility study is geared toward 2013-14 being a transition year for the new Jacksonville school district, which would be fully operational for the 2014-15 school year.

Two concerns expressed by the crowd were about payments for the new Maumelle High School and Sylvan Hills Middle School.

Ivory Tillman said it wouldn’t be fair for the proposed Jacksonville school district to be saddled with debts for those two schools.

Gray said the education group’s lawyer is verifying what is in the bond paperwork. He explained that a resolution approved by the PCSSD school board in 2009 said any new Jacksonville school district would not be saddled with the debt. The bond agents are on record agreeing with that and saying, if that isn’t in the legal paperwork, it should be clarified.

Another parent had heard that both Maumelle and Sher-wood are looking at forming their own districts. She was afraid that the efforts by those cities would hurt Jacksonville’s effort.

O’Brien said there was nothing to worry about — that those cities would not get their own districts anytime soon.

“PCSSD just built brand new, elite schools in Maumelle and Sherwood. The courts are not going to let them break away,” he said. He added after the meeting that Maumelle could not comply with federal desegregation requirements—it would be too white.

The state law that allows Jacksonville to break away states any new district must have at least 4,000 students and the district it is breaking away from must have at least 4,000 students. Neither Sherwood nor Maumelle has 4,000 students.

Simpson has calculated Jacksonville’s numbers three different ways, and the student numbers run from 4,300 to 4,700. PCSSD would be left with about 13,200 students.

According to the study, PCSSD is currently 43 percent black. Once Jacksonville breaks away, PCSSD would be 41.6 percent black and the Jacksonville district would be 46.7 percent black. Both would be within the acceptable federal range for desegregation.

Other concerns expressed by the audience were about staffing and Bayou Meto Elementary.

Martha Whatley with the local education group said there is a precedent for staffing because, many years ago, Little Rock took over parts of PCSSD.

She said the teachers and staff were given the option to stay at the school under the rules of the new district or transfer to a school in PCSSD. She expected something similar would happen in Jacksonville.

A parent was worried about Bayou Meto, explaining that half the school’s students filter into Jacksonville Middle School and half into Northwood Middle School. Northwood would not be a part of the new district.

Gray said, based on the boundaries approved by PCSSD, all Bayou Meto students would be part of the new district.

Simpson made it clear that Jacksonville’s new district would not be without challenges.

He said the number one problem for the proposed district would be the condition of the schools.

The new district would take in 10 operational schools and two closed schools. Out of the 10 open schools, five are in such poor shape that the state would probably recommend they be replaced instead of being remodeled to be brought up to state standards. Simpson said, based on historical data, the state should fund about 48 percent of the new schools, but certainly would not be able to do all of them at once.

The proposed Jacksonville district would encompass 100 square miles and include all of Jacksonville and north Pulaski County. PCSSD encompasses more than 700 square miles.