Saturday, October 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> Decision needed for cities to leave

Leader staff writer

Supporters of a new Jacksonville school district hope the attorney general will release an opinion in the next three or four weeks on the impact of the proposed detachment on the 1989 federal desegregation lawsuit.

Sherwood also wants to separate from the county district.

But Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has been tied up in settlement talks, explained Daniel Gray, a member of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps.

The attorney general recently made an offer after he rejected one from the Little Rock School District that included a seven-year phase-out plan and the state pay about $300 million over that time frame or in a lump sum.

McDaniel’s offer says the state could pay $69 million it’s supposed to pay the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School District for the 2013-14 school year plus another $49 million to be split among the three.

It also states the money won’t be considered local revenue and that the state’s obligation to support magnet schools as well as interdistrict transfers would end.

PCSSD would get $3.9 million on Jan. 1, April 1, July 1 and Sept. 1 for a total of $15.6 million in addition to what it is already supposed to receive for the 2013-14 school year.

Gray said the next step after the opinion is released is for the judge in the desegregation cases, Price Marshall, to authorize a local election on whether Jacksonville should break away from PCSSD. The state Education Department has already validated the city’s petition for the vote.

Gray hopes Marshall will speak about the effort during the desegregation hearing set for Dec. 9. Nov. 15 is the deadline to present any settlement to the Legislative Council for consideration before the December hearing.

Meanwhile, Sherwood also wants its own district. Supporters there are playing catch up.

State law requires that the Pulaski County Special School District have at least 15,000 students the year prior to a detachment and that any new district have at least 4,000.

PCSSD has a little more than 17,000. If one city breaks away first, the other won’t be able to. Sherwood and Jacksonville must detach at the same time for both to get what they want — local control over public education.

The recently formed 12-member Sherwood Public Education Foundation committee met last week, and a second meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday at New Dora Baptist Church at 317 Jaminson St., which is behind Harris Elementary.

They need between $12,000 and $15,000 in donations to conduct a feasibility study showing the area has the tax base to support a school district, meet state student number requirements and that the racial makeup of the district would comply with federal desegregation rulings, committee co-chairwoman Beverly Williams said.

The study is an early step in the detachment process.

“We’ve got to get this going,” Williams added.

People can donate to the group via its website at Between $25,000 and $40,000 total is needed get everything, including the study, prepared, Williams said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Gray said he hadn’t spoken with the advocates for a Sherwood district.

He explained, “We have been focused on Jacksonville’s efforts.”

Jacksonville residents could vote on the detachment during the September 2014 school board election or the November 2014 general election.

Gray said, “Our goal is as soon as possible.”

While he didn’t call a combined Jacksonville and Sherwood District impossible, Gray seemed to think it unlikely. “That would be a whole different can of worms. That’s never been discussed. That’s not what we’re focusing on,” he said.

Jacksonville has purchased four feasibility studies during its 35-year effort. If Sherwood and Jacksonville joined forces, another would be needed, Gray noted.

Based on census numbers, Sherwood is the 14th largest city in Arkansas and the largest without a school district, supporters there say.

The boundaries of the proposed Sherwood School District are drawn at I-40 and I-440. The district would include basically everything north of the river that isn’t in the North Little Rock School District or the proposed Jacksonville district.

That includes McAlmont and the Runyan Acres area. They are not inside Sherwood city limits or the proposed boundaries for the Jacksonville district.

Information gleaned from the Jacksonville feasibility study shows that Sherwood can make it on its own, but the city can’t use the Jacksonville study.

Sherwood needs to have a professional — possibly Norman Hill, a retired superintendent — look at its specific educational and financial landscape.

But, Williams explained at the meeting Tuesday, that Jacksonville has a study helps because it shows supporters what information should be in a Sherwood study.

Sherwood’s schools — Cato Elementary, Oakbrooke Elementary, Sherwood Elementary, Sylvan Hills Elementary, Northwood Middle, Sylvan Hills Middle and Sylvan Hills High, and possibly Harris Elementary — have an enrollment close to 4,400.

A Sherwood district would be about 43 percent black, which is within the acceptable federal range for desegregation.