Friday, November 01, 2013

TOP STORY >> PCSSD believes it’s ready for cut

Leader staff writer

“The biggest issue we face is loss of desegregation funding,” Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, told the only parent who attended a meeting Tuesday.

That funding is nearly $20 million, which could impact the district’s progress toward financial stability if it’s cut.

But Guess said, “We should be able to run the district like every other district in the state...The district is in a much better financial state.”

PCSSD was taken over by the state in 2011 for being in fiscal distress.

Since the takeover, the district’s legal fund balance has grown by about $3 million this year. It has increased from a little more than $4 million to $17.6 million since the takeover, according to the district’s annual report to the public.

That was one objective of the fiscal distress improvement plan and provides a reserve equal to slightly more than one month’s average expenditures, the report continues.

Tuesday’s meeting satisfied a legal requirement for PCSSD to make the report, which was about its financial status, accreditation standards, plans for facilities and security, elementary education, secondary education, federal programs, financial overview, school board, test scores and the desegregation plan.

The parent, Kelly Swope, was concerned about whether funding for gifted and talented programs at College Station Elementary School, Fuller Middle School and Mills High School would continue when the 1989 desegregation case is resolved.

PCSSD wants to be released from federal court oversight while the state is seeking to end its obligation under a settlement agreement to pay about $70 million in annual desegregation aid to PCSSD, the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts. Little Rock and North Little Rock want the funding to be phased out.

A trial in the case will be held on Dec. 9. It is scheduled to last two weeks.

According to the office of Sam Jones, PCSSD’s lawyer, pretrial briefs are due Nov. 8, responses to motions are due Nov. 13, a joint report on disputed depositions and responses to trial briefs are due Nov. 20; and the pretrial conference is Nov. 22.

The Little Rock School District’s recent request to delay the trial was denied.

And Jones said the trial would start on time before Judge D. Price Marshall.

A separate but related set of hearings before Marshall, wherein PCSSD will argue that it is unitary in eight of nine areas, were scheduled to begin in late August, he continued.

At the hearings, the judge will decide whether PCSSD has significantly complied with its desegregation plan — Plan 2000 — and achieved unitary status.

Unitary status means that a district is desegregated.

Jones said the unitary status hearings for PCSSD were postponed at the request of John Walker, the Joshua Intervenors’ attorney. The intervenors represent black students.

But Marshall denied a request by the intervenors to delay the December trial.

Jones said all of the unitary status hearing dates have passed. He expects the judge to set new hearing dates in the spring or summer.

At the meeting, Guess told Swope that he couldn’t say what would happen to the gifted and talented programs when the case is finally closed.

Swope said, if the gifted and talented programs were phased out because of funding shortfalls after the district is released from federal oversight, the future for Mills University Studies would not be a bright one.

She noted that test scores at Mills would drop significantly if the students in the advanced placement program, through which they can earn college credit by doing well on national tests, had to attend the schools where they live.

“It’s going to come back at you and slap you in the face,” Swope told Guess.

She was also concerned about teacher layoffs and suggested that the district look at reducing its central office staff instead. “I’m not a fan of overhead,” Swope said after the meeting.

Also, according to PCSSD’s annual report to the public:

 The district may remain in fiscal distress and be operated by state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, who is acting as its school board, for a total of five years. PCSSD is in its third year of fiscal distress.

 This school year, the district employed 1,310 teachers, 1,202 support staff and 120 administrators. Enrollment was just under 18,000.

 All PCSSD schools are accredited by the Arkansas State Board of Education.

 Over the past two years, the district has reduced unnecessary infrastructure and spent $14 million of nonrecurring funds on facility restoration and modernization.

Parts of the old Sylvan Hills Middle School were demolished, and PCSSD entered into a long-term lease for the Jacksonville Elementary School campus on North Spring Street.

The city is leasing the property, and plans are to eventually turn the old cafeteria and at least one other building there into a community arts center.

 The district renovated restrooms, repaired roofs, upgraded heating and air systems, finished paving projects, painted interiors and exteriors and made other improvements to facilities. Most of the projects were completed at Jacksonville schools.

 PCSSD installed digital cameras and GPS radios on all of its 239 buses. Officials also improved security alarms, cameras, locks, access control and security processes at the schools. A new director of security and a second coordinator of security were hired.

 Common Core state standards have been implemented at all elementary schools in the district. Common Core is a way of teaching that goes deeper into reading, math and science.

All elementary and secondary schools have developed an Arkansas Consolidated School Improvement Plan that lists strategies each school will use to raise student achievement.

Teachers and math instructors can train in state-supported professional development.

The schools also have literacy and/or math facilitators who help teachers in their classrooms.

 Every middle school has professional training in math and literacy to prepare kids for high school.

 Every high school participates in the Arkansas Advanced Initiative for Math and Science to prepare students for college and careers.

 The district is piloting alternative-learning classrooms at secondary schools.

 In PCSSD, 19 elementary schools receive federal Title 1 funds for programs that help bridge the achievement gap.

The amount is based on how many students receive free or reduced lunches at each campus.

 The district is replacing 20 to 25 buses per year.

Leader senior staff writer John Hoffheimer contributed to this report.