Wednesday, December 18, 2013

TOP STORY >> Sherwood opposes PCSSD deal

Leader staff writer

Twenty-five words — just two lines, only one sentence — caused the Sherwood City Council to take a stand Monday night against the state-proposed desegregation settlement.

“The desegregation case is 35 years old and it needs to end,” said City Attorney Steve Cobb, “but, in the process, we want to be treated like everyone else.”

The sentence in the proposed settlement causing the consternation is: “The state will oppose the creation of any other school district (besides Jacksonville) from PCSSD’s territory until PCSSD is declared fully unitary and released from court supervision.”

The council unanimously approved a resolution calling on Cobb to prepare the objection.

If the settlement is approved, it will end — in about four years — the state’s annual payments of more than $70 million split between Little Rock, north Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.

State Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood), who found the added sentence in the attorney general’s final proposal, said it would throw Sherwood under the proverbial school bus.

He told the council Monday night that it wasn’t right to insert that sentence at this point in Sherwood’s efforts. “You were doing everything that was asked of you, following the law, playing by the rules, doing what you were supposed to do, and then the state decides to change rules.”

Linda Remele, who co-chairs with Beverly Williams the group that is laying the foundation for a separate school district, said Sherwood supporters have two choices — throw their hands up and wait until the district does reach unitary state and is released from court supervision, or push forward and raise concerns and objections now.

She said the education foundation is meeting in the next few days. Remele and Williams will recommend the panel file a letter of objection just like the council voted to do.

Cobb said he would start drafting the city’s objection immediately and once reviewed by the mayor and other city officials, he will send it to U.S District Judge G. Price Marshall.

According to the attorney general, any objections to the proposed settlement agreement must be submitted in writing to the court by Dec. 23.

In pushing for the resolution, Alderman Charlie Harmon said, “It is very evident that Sherwood residents want their own school district. We represent the 30,000 people of the city; no one else does.”

Remele said, “We agree with most Arkansans that this long overdue settlement agreement is needed in Arkansas, but we are profoundly disappointed with a last-minute change to the proposed desegregation settlement.”

She told the council she and the foundation were “shocked when we found out, as it was not in the original proposal.”

Remele said she and Williams met with the governor and the attorney general, but got no promises of a change.

Williams told the council that, even though the feasibility study was not complete, the racial and economic numbers were available. They showed that a Sherwood district would not upset the racial balance of PCSSD, she said.

The proposed Sherwood district — one high school, two middle schools and six elementary schools — would be whiter than PCSSD, but it would also be blacker and socio-economically disadvantaged.

Williams pointed out, “PCSSD is 44.5 percent white; the proposed Sherwood district would be 45.5 percent white. PCSSD is 43.5 percent black; the proposed Sherwood district would be 44 percent black. And PCSSD is 6.5 percent Hispanic; Sherwood would be 6 percent Hispanic.”

She continued, “PCSSD enrollment has 55.5 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch; Sherwood would have 58 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Both PCSSD and the proposed Sherwood district have 12 percent enrolled in special education.”

Remele added, “We are supportive of that opportunity for our neighboring city, and we had no problems with that paragraph (allowing Jacksonville its own district) until that sentence was added. It has unfair, negative consequences for our community.”

She said, “It begs the obvious question: Why is it allowable for one community to create its own school district, yet not for Sherwood?”

Sherwood has been working toward its own district since 2004 and has made major strides in the past year.

In 2004, Sherwood residents determined that a community-based and community-run school district would be in the best interest of the city and its students.

Earlier this year, the council passed a resolution establishing the Sherwood Public Education Foundation with the mayor appointing its members. The foundation has been pursuing the process outlined by Arkansas law to create a Sherwood Public School District. The process included holding public meetings and initiating a feasibility study.

Williams told the council Monday that Sherwood is the 14th largest city in the state, yet doesn’t have its own school district. If it gets its own district, it will be in the top 20 in size — between Benton and El Dorado school districts.

Attorneys for the Joshua Intervenors and the Pulaski County Special School District have agreed on two more areas in which the district is unitary — that’s desegregated — and have asked Judge Marshall to appoint a magistrate to help oversee compliance and agreement on the final seven areas.

“PCSSD has substantially complied with its obligations in Plan 2000 regarding 1) student Assignment and 2) talented and assignment, gifted, advanced placement and honors programs,” according to a stipulation filed Monday with the district clerk’s office over the signatures of attorneys John Walker and Allen Roberts.