Wednesday, April 24, 2013

TOP STORY >> Sherwood wants split from PCSSD

Leader staff writer

The Sherwood City Council voted on Monday to form a committee that will study the feasibility of an independent school district.

Critics have said Sher-wood’s enrollment is too low to break away, but maybe they’re wrong.

State law requires any new district to have at least 4,000 students and the district it is breaking away from must have at least 4,000 students. Pulaski County Special School District has more than 17,000 students.

Sherwood’s schools —Cato Elementary, Oakbrook Elementary, Sherwood Elementary, Sylvan Hills Elementary, Northwood Middle, Sylvan Hills Middle and Sylvan Hills High — have an enrollment of 4,497. That is according to the most recent count released by PCSSD on March 14.

A Sherwood district would also be 43.6 percent black, which is within the acceptable federal range for desegregation.

That is important because PCSSD has yet to achieve unitary status — meaning it is not considered fully integrated.

Any new district would have to receive approval from the federal court to split from PCSSD, which is 45.4 percent black, according to the March 14 count.

Alderman Mary Jo Heye asked at the council meeting how many people would be on the committee researching what Sherwood needs to do to form its own district.

The mayor said she would like to see at least five, but no more than nine, members.

Heye said, “I’m personally so excited. Nothing can affect our economic future more than being able to control the quality of our education.”

The council is seeking volunteers to serve on the committee. Residents are also encouraged to suggest people who would be a valuable members of the group.

Alderman Mike Sanders will represent the council on the committee. He was the only council member with a child who attends a PCSSD school.

Sanders’ son is a freshman at Sylvan Hills High School.

Steve Jordan, whose daughter is a senior at the high school, has volunteered to be a parent representative on the committee.

Alderman Marina Brooks said a resident asked her if the city was spending money on the study.

Mayor Virginia Hillman said the city is not using any funds to conduct the study.

She continued, “There’s a lot of interest. It’s a progressive thing. It’s something we owe to our kids and their parents.”

Former Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien, a member of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps — the group pushing for an independent district in Jacksonville — has said the courts would not allow Sherwood to break away because PCSSD just built the $31.5 million Sylvan Hills Middle School, which opened in 2011.

The district has been under federal court supervision for decades. That will end when it is declared unitary.

When it is released from court oversight, PCSSD stands to lose between $17 million and $20 million it receives in desegregation money for programs like majority to minority transfers.

After the meeting, Jordan said, “It’s not going to be fast. It’s not going to be easy. But it’s the perfect time because (PCSSD is) in disarray.”

The state took over the district in June 2011, dismissing the school board and firing then-superintendent Charles Hopson.

Superintendent Jerry Guess replaced Hopson. State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell is acting as a one-man school board.

A law that passed recently allows the arrangement to continue for three more years.

Since then, Maumelle has announced its intention to look into getting an independent school district.

O’Brien has said, aside from the fact there is a new high school there, the city doesn’t have enough students and wouldn’t be able to comply with desegregation requirements because it is too white.

Unlike Sherwood and Maumelle, which are in the early stages of getting their own districts, the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps is nearing its goal.

The group is collecting signatures on a petition that would put to a vote whether the city should have its own school district.

Jacksonville could split from PCSSD as soon as this fall.

All of the city’s six feasibility studies have shown there is community support for a new district, it would have an adequate tax base and revenue, and it would not upset desegregation issues being monitored by the federal court.

According to the March 14 enrollment count, schools in the proposed district’s boundaries — Homer Adkins Preschool, Bayou Meto Elementary, Murrell Taylor Elementary, Pinewood Elementary, Tolleson Elementary, Arnold Drive Elementary, Warren Dupree Elementary, Jacksonville Mid-dle, Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School — have 4,655 students, more than required by state law to separate from PCSSD.

According to that count, a Jacksonville school district would be 50 percent black.

If both Jacksonville and Sherwood split from PCSSD, the district would be left with 8,615 students and 43.9 percent of that enrollment would be black.

That is also within the acceptable range for desegregation.