Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TOP STORY >> Guess has plans to make PCSSD better next year

Leader senior staff writer

Now that the state Board of Education has officially given the Pulaski County Special School District another year to right its fiscal ship, Superintendent Jerry Guess has big plans for the district—provided his contract is renewed.

He’s not been offered a contract yet, but state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell has publicly expressed confidence in Guess’ efforts to extricate the district from fiscal distress, and his chief of staff, Phyllis Stewart, said Tuesday that Guess’ contract would be renewed.

“Guess is doing a good job,” Kimbrell said at the May board meeting Monday, and he said the district has “a bright future.”

Until the state Legislature amended the existing law last month, the state could only take over a district in fiscal distress for two years before taking more extreme measures, such as consolidating or annexing it, but the state now has up to five years.

Neither remedy would have been a likely option for PCSSD as long as the district is under a desegregation order and oversight by the federal courts.

PCSSD and the Helena/West Helena School District both were placed on year three of fiscal distress at Monday’s state school board meeting — an action that would have been impossible without the amended legislation.

The board also authorized Kimbrell to appoint a citizens advisory council for each of those districts, with membership subject to state board confirmation.

Stewart said Kimbrell was pulling together lists from which to choose advisory council members. The council would make recommendations, but not decisions.

Without the law change and authorization by the board, June 30 would have been the end of PCSSD’s second and final year in fiscal distress. “We would have been out of time,” said Guess. “Two years is not enough time for changes to become part of the culture.”

“A lot of what we’re doing here is just good practice in most schools, but it doesn’t appear to have been done here over the years,” Guess said Tuesday.

“We offered contracts to certified personnel about two weeks ago, in anticipation of the school year.

The district has about $4 million in its facilities fund, so in addition to stripping and waxing floors, painting, tending to shrub beds and grass cutting, the district will look at camera systems, heating and air-conditioning, roofs — “a lot of safe, warm and dry things,” he said. “That is the watch phrase.”

The district also is busy ordering textbooks, filling positions and doing whatever else is necessary, Guess said.

Jacksonville community members reported their progress toward detaching from PCSSD for residents of Jacksonville and northern Pulaski County, saying they hoped to go before the board again in June with enough verified petition signatures to for a detachment election.

“I’ve been working on this for most of my life,” said Patrick Wilson, a lawyer who would have been in diapers when the first efforts for detachment were started in about 1970.

Board member Vicki Saviers asked, “Do we need to be looking at another option?”

She suggested that a broader solution, such as breaking up the district into several smaller districts, might be in order.

Kimbrell said further changes in the district’s makeup should await a decision by the courts as to whether or not Jacksonville can detach. He said he had expected the state legislature to consider breaking the district into two districts—one north of the river, one south.

He said a Maumelle district would be almost all white and not likely to garner favor with the judge in the desegregation case.

The biggest stumbling block to a Jacksonville detachment vote would be an opinion or order from Federal District Court Judge Price Marshall Jr. that a detachment election could not be held until the district achieves unitary status, meaning desegregation requirements have been met.

Last time Jacksonville residents sought such an election, the PCSSD board opposed it, took them to court and the judge ordered the election cancelled.

Now PCSSD favors the detachment. A new study found detachment to be feasible, based on state detachment law, projected attendance of the two districts and financially — each district could afford to operate successfully after detachment.

The petition to call an election requires 1,260 valid signatures of residents of the proposed Jacksonville/north Pulaski district. So far the group has collected about 1,600 signatures and verified 1,000, according to Wilson.

When the necessary number of signatures are gathered, verified and submitted to the state board, it’s then incumbent on the board to ask the court for permission and then schedule an election, he said.

The new, 48-page feasibility study, published in January, found that detachment would:

 Leave both a Jacksonville/north Pulaski district and the Pulaski County Special School District with at least 4,000 students, as required by state law in the matter of detachment.

 Have the tax base, milage rate and revenue sufficient to run the proposed 4,300-student, 10-school district, noting that an increase in local taxes might be required to deal with the inventory of decrepit school buildings inherited by the new district.

 Not affect court-ordered desegregation efforts of PCSSD and both entities would be subject to the desegregation plan until released by Marshall. Detachment would not significantly alter the racial composition of PCSSD and the new district would have approximately the same composition.

 Likely require increased local taxes to bring the old school buildings up to state standards.