Wednesday, November 20, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Jacksonville goes it alone

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who made the parties settle their long-running Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit, said Tuesday that Jacksonville can begin the process of setting up its own district.

A decade-long effort to split from the troubled county district is finally paying off, thanks to the pioneering work of former Reps. Pat and Will Bond, the mother-and-son team of Jacksonville legislators who pushed through bills making it possible for the city to form its own school district. The Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps, lead by Daniel Gray and attorney Patrick Wilson, pushed relentlessly for an independent district, which should be more responsive to the needs of students and parents.

“We’re excited there’s a settlement in place agreed to by all three districts and the state,” said Daniel Gray, president of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps.

“We’re closer than ever to a Jacksonville-North Pulaski school district—the district we’ve sought for most of my life,” said Patrick Wilson, attorney for Jacksonville-North Pulaski Education Corps. “We’re anxious for there to be a complete settlement that says our dream is going to be a reality.”

Independence is now closer after McDaniel managed to bring the parties together for a historic deal that now awaits approval from a federal court.

U.S. District Judge G. Price Marshall heard details of the agreement during a special hearing Tuesday afternoon and could decide as soon as Friday on whether to approve the settlement of a lawsuit that was filed back in 1982 by civil rights attorney John Walker. He told the Little Rock School Board on Monday that he and the Joshua intervenors, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, will accept McDaniel’s offer of $263.2 million in state aid to the three Pulaski County schools through 2018, when the annual subsidies will end.

All three school districts are now on board for the historic agreement, but Judge Marshall must also approve such as separation, and there is a catch: The draft agreement between the parties states that PCSSD must convince the Joshua intervenors and the court that the district has been desegregated. PCSSD remains deficient in nine areas, including poor student achievement, alleged disciplinary bias against black students and shabby facilities. Walker says he won’t quit the lawsuit until he’s satisfied PCSSD meets his exacting standards.

Walker could keep PCSSD tied up in court for a while longer. But Jacksonville leaders who sought their own district for more than a decade must feel they are closer to attaining that long-elusive goal. Maumelle and Sherwood have expressed their interest in detachment, but the latest agreement says they must stay in the county district.

As for Jacksonville, community leaders can start forming an exploratory committee that will present candidates for an independent school board as soon as next year. Adequate funding to upgrade the city’s crumbling schools is essential. The county district estimates it will cost between $80 to $90 million to fix the city’s schools. That will require a millage increase, which local residents will support because they know their tax dollars will stay in the community.

All in all, this has been a good week for Pulaski County schools, but especially for Jacksonville, which can now build a better future for its students.