Tuesday, July 16, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Detachment long overdue

If you were born when Jacksonville leaders first began trying to carve their own district from Pulaski County Special School District, you might have grandchildren in the schools now—and still no separate district.

That was in the late 1960s, about the time Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration gave way to that of Richard M. Nixon. Believe it or not, local residents found PCSSD’s board and administrators to be in disarray.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Now the state has declared PCSSD to be in fiscal distress and is in year three of running the district itself without an elected school board.

So although the state Board of Education this month unanimously verified that the current efforts by members of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps meet all requirements of state law for a detachment election and forwarded the petition for such to the state attorney general’s office, don’t get too overconfident yet.

Congratulations to the hard-working people folks who got us this far, most recently Daniel Gray, attorney Patrick Wilson and posthumously, Ben Rice, but we’ve been here before.

In 2003, the state Board of Education agreed to call a special election on the issue of Jacksonville’s detachment, but the PCSSD objected in court and Federal Judge Bill Wilson ruled detachment could affect desegregation negatively, ordering the election cancelled.

While the efforts have ebbed and flowed over the decades, the desire of many Jacksonvillians to control the destiny of their community by providing better education and better facilities has never disappeared.

Despite blistering growth and development in neighboring Cabot, Austin and Ward, Jacksonville’s population has remained stagnant at roughly 30,000 for decades, and it’s likely to remain so until the area has its own school district. The issue is not just about educating children, it’s also about economic development. People don’t invest in or move to a troubled district with bad schools and facilities if they can avoid it.

Two impediments in 2003 to the proposed district—opposition by PCSSD and failure to work with the judge overseeing the desegregation agreement before calling the election—are nonissues this time. PCSSD is all in.

Although it is still possible that Federal Judge Price Marshall will rule against a detachment election, proponents argue that a separate district would make it easier for PCSSD and Jacksonville to achieve unitary status.

That’s because the aging Jacksonville/North Pulaski County schools would be repaired or replaced at their own expense — removing the financial burden from PCSSD. Inadequate school facilities are one of the roadblocks to unitary status.

A Jacksonville-area district would have the support of residents with an established sense of community. These are people who have taxed themselves to help pay for a new community college building at Little Rock Air Force Base and with the base have been recipients of the Abilene Trophy for best community support of an Air Mobility Wing in the United States.

It’s reasonable to expect that Jacksonville residents would support an increase in the current school property-tax millage of 40.7 mills in order to build new schools and repair old ones. The most recent of six detachment feasibility studies provided four options and estimates for building some new schools and repairing others, ranging from $63 million to $91 million. No one thinks that’s going to happen without a millage increase.

If the election is held and if those affected by the change approve detachment, there’s a lot of work to be done before the district sets off on its own with an appointed board and new superintendent for the 2014-2015 school year.

But, would the new district be launched already in fiscal distress? “New school district, clean slate, that’s what I would argue if I were superintendent of the new district,” said PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess.

It’s not Guess’ call, but he said he would think the new district would not be in fiscal distress, academic distress or facilities distress.

But that would be for the state to decide.

The unions—which were decertified and had their contracts abrogated when the state took over PCSSD—have not weighed in on this issue. Currently they are in court seeking to have those actions reversed, but their resistance to change has not been helpful.

Detachment seems to us to be a win-win situation.