Tuesday, July 09, 2013

TOP STORY >> District backers look to a vote

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville-area residents are closer than they’ve ever been to getting their own school district. Again.

“We got everything we came for,” Daniel Gray, spokesman for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski County Education Corps, said.

The state Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved as valid petitions submitted by activists seeking to detach a Jacksonville/North Pulaski County district from the 730-square-mile Pulaski County Special School District.

The new district would take about 100 square miles out of that.

Ten years ago, the state board set an election to let residents decide the issue, but the PCSSD board opposed the move, went to court and U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson ruled that such a detachment was contrary to desegregation efforts and scuttled the vote.

This time around, according to the Jacksonville group’s lawyer, Patrick Wilson, PCSSD is in favor of the detachment and proponents are seeking approval of both the state attorney general’s office and U.S. District Judge Price Marshall before returning to the board of education to set a detachment election.

Mayor Gary Fletcher, director of administration Jim Durham, Mike and Larry Wilson, most members of the Jacksonville City Council — including former school board member Bishop James Bolden, state Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), Reedie Ray and former state Rep. Pat Bond were among others attending in support.

Chairman Brenda Gullett said going against Bond would be like going against the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus.

The state board approved as valid petitions signed by 2,079 residents of the area that would comprise the new district and will submit the information supporting the request for an election on the matter to the state attorney general’s office.

County clerks in both Pulaski and Lonoke counties verified the petitions and sig natures, as well as the number of signatures needed.

If the attorney general’s office — which has been trying to extricate the state from the tangled desegregation agreement that costs it about $60 million a year — approves the petition, the supporting documents and board action, Marshall will be asked to sign off and allow the detachment election.

The state board would then be asked to set a date for such an election, which could be a special election, school election or general election.

Both the feasibility study and PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess have said that the detachment would actually make it easier for the districts to achieve unitary status, especially in terms of repairing and replacing old and decrepit school buildings — one of the stumbling blocks to achieving unitary status. Transferring responsibility for those buildings to a new district would lighten PCSSD’s financial burden, officials say.

Board member Sam Led-better asked if the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts opposed the detachment. Wilson said they were currently preoccupied, but would be considering the detachment later.

The effort to carve the district from the sprawling Pulaski County Special School District dates back to the late 1960s. Some supporters are second-generation leaders of the effort.

Representing the Jackson-ville/North Pulaski School District Education Corps, Wilson — one of the second-generation activists on the matter — told the board that the group had met all four requirements for detaching from PCSSD:

 A statement of purpose to form a new school district.

 Maps of the area affected.

 An independent feasibility study — the group has had six in recent years, including the one this year.

 A petition signed by 10 percent of voters who participated in the last election. Proponents needed 1,869 verified signatures and gathered an extra 210 signatures.

Winston F. Simpson’s feasibility concluded that both the new and old districts would have more than the required 4,000 students, both would have enough money to operate and neither would be negatively impacted regarding racial balance and the 2000 Desegregation Agreement.

While Jacksonville’s detachment effort is not part of the desegregation case before Marshall, they intersect.

Two of nine remaining unitary issues that PCSSD is seeking hearings on were slated for an August hearing and two more begin Dec. 9, according to the district’s longtime desegregation lawyer, Sam Jones.

But, late last week, John Walker, lawyer for the Joshua Intervenors in the desegregation case, asked and received a postponement of the August hearing for personal health reasons, but Marshall declined to postpone the December hearing. He has not set a new hearing date to replace the postponed August hearing.

The judge is expected to want to hear how the state’s motion to stop desegregation funding totaling about $60 million a year — $20 million of that to PCSSD — would affect PCSSD’s unitary efforts, Jones said. He suggested that may offer an opening to discuss the proposed detachment.