Saturday, November 23, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Jacksonville big winner

Jacksonville may soon get what it has long wanted: to break away from the Pulaski County Special School District and form its own independent school district. That could happen next year after a dramatic week in a federal courtroom.

U.S. Judge G. Price Marshall ruled Friday that PCSSD has met most criteria to be considered desegregated, clearing the way for Jacksonville’s release from the chronically failing district that is headquartered on Dixon Road in Little Rock.

A stand-alone Jacksonville school district is possible within two years thanks to resolution of the expensive desegregation effort that has tied up schools in central Arkansas for at least 31 years at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Jacksonville voters will now have to approve the split in an election to be held as soon as next September.

Patrick Wilson and Daniel Gray of Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps, which has been leading the effort to leave PCSSD, are pleased that Judge Price appreciated the importance of settling the long-running desegregation lawsuit now instead of letting it drag out for several more years.

Jacksonville is fortunate that the case has finally ended up in Judge Price’s courtroom. He’s a brilliant jurist who has a full grasp of the issues. The interests of students matter the most to him.

“I can’t see how it could have gone better,” said Jim Durham, Jacksonville’s director of administration, after the judge issued his historic decision.

Gray, who has steadfastly worked to help the city reach this point, said his efforts will now focus on getting area school patrons to vote for the separation.

Jacksonville residents have sought an independent school district for about a decade after suffering the consequences of an incompetent and dysfunctional school board, which the state Education Department dissolved two years ago, after realizing that the district’s financial and academic problems weren’t going to get better.

In recent years, the PCSSD school board had become one of the worst in the country. There was constant arguing during meetings by members who had no idea how to improve the failing schools, sidelining a string of superintendents who eventually all left in frustration.

Before the state stepped in, Jacksonville had only one board member, Bill Vasquez, who achieved little for his hometown and was hamstrung by employee union squabbles. In the end, he was happy to see the state take over. We all were, figuring the district would continue its shameful decline without state intervention.

PCSSD refused to help Jacksonville, where school buildings have been neglected for years and a new one has not been built in about 35 years. A locally-based district will mean Jacksonville will have the opportunity to reverse that trend. It should also help attract and retain families, who have instead been drawn to Cabot and other communities in central Arkansas.

The new district will probably have to raise its millage rate from 40.7 mills to pay for improvement to school buildings — but the state would pay half the cost because Jacksonville would be classified as a poor district.

At least one of the provisions preliminarily approved by Marshall can be traced back to Will Bond’s tenure as a state representative for Jacksonville. Succeeding his mother Pat, who introduced legislation earlier in the House making an independent district possible, young Will in 2007 drafted legislation ordering the districts to try to reach an agreement and dangling a carrot before the districts by offering to pay up to $250,000 in legal fees to each district to pursue an agreement. And the agreement Marshall approved Friday included $250,000 in legal fees for each of the three districts. Lawyers aren’t cheap, but that fee will be well spent.

In recent years, Sherwood, which has suffered less under PCSSD, has been working to break away. It, too, realizes the advantages of managing its own schools. For now, though, Sherwood, along with Maumelle, which also wants to split, will have to stay in the Pulaski County district, because the agreement that the judge approved only made room for Jacksonville’s exit.

PCSSD, under the leadership of interim Superintendent Jerry Guess, had supported Jacksonville’s aspirations to leave the district. He knows PCSSD has failed the city. But the split also means that PCSSD is no longer responsible for the problems at Jacksonville High School, which has won federal grants in the last few years because it ranks in the bottom 5 percent of schools in Arkansas. That alone will boost PCSSD’s test-score averages. Many other Jacksonville schools are also failing, but there’s now hope.

We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.