Monday, January 20, 2014

EDITORIAL >> New district, new opening

On Sept. 16, almost exactly nine months from today — your typical gestation period, by the way — Jacksonville-area residents can deliver a newborn school district.

That’s if the proposed Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district makes it to the annual school election ballot, and if voters living within the boundaries of that district approve the plan.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. — smart, friendly, good-humored and sartorially splendid in his bowtie and suspenders that he wore, or we imagined he wore — cleared the way for a new district when he accepted the desegregation agreement settlement. That settlement specifically approved by name Jacksonville’s pursuit of a new district.

That’s huge to the folks in this neighborhood, although Sherwood residents who also want their own district were left high and dry. They seemed resigned for now to denial of their intention to forge their own district from PCSSD as well.

Also huge in the settlement Marshall approved is language that limits the state’s financial obligation to desegregation of Pulaski County school districts to about $260 million over the next four school years. PCSSD would get about $80 million of that, although a new Jacksonville district would get a slice of it too.

All six parties with any known stake in the desegregation agreement agreed to the settlement, which was among the reasons Marshall said he felt comfortable approving it.

The six are the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, the state Education Department, the Joshua Intervenors and the Knight Intervenors.

No one involved with the case can remember detachment — a chunk of an existing school district being broken off as a separate district — but about 1,300 words of state code prescribe the steps and requirements for creation of a school district by detaching territory from an existing one through either election or petition, how to initiate detachment and creation of a school district by detachment.

The law clearly states that detachment is only possible if it doesn’t interfere with desegregation efforts. Marshall was satisfied that a Jacksonville-area district would have little or no effect on the racial balance of PCSSD and that both districts would have sufficient money to operate and to continue desegregation efforts.

PCSSD and the Joshua Intervenors are cordially pursuing unitary status along a separate track that also runs through Marshall’s court.

We find this encouraging. PCSSD is currently in year three of fiscal distress and therefore under direct control of the state Education Department, with Commissioner Tom Kimbrell acting as the PCSSD board.

Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have both been declared unitary — that is desegregated — but PCSSD is still lacking in unitary status in several areas, including the expensive area of safe and updated school facilities.

Assuming a Jacksonville detachment, if it’s possible to assume such a thing after decades of false starts, promising developments and disappointments, the new district would carry with it all the desegregation deficiencies.

It seems likely, however, that the new district would not labor in fiscal distress under state control, but would get a fresh start.

Regardless of a Jacksonville detachment, PCSSD is likely to propose a millage increase of at least 5 mills, from the current rate of 40 mills.

Whatever the millage rate at the time of separation, the PCSSD rate would apply in a Jacksonville-area district until a new school board proposed a change and brought it to the voters.

That millage increase is necessary so the district can afford to build its way out of the decrepit and aging buildings housing its students here.

Currently, the North Little Rock rate is 48 mills and Little Rock’s rate is about 46 mills.

Many things will be necessary to bring detachment to a vote, but some, like a petition with sufficient signatures and a recent feasibility study, are already complete.

Then, with a “yes” vote, officials from PCSSD and Jacksonville/north Pulaski — with help from the state — will have to thrash out a thousand details about dividing money, debt, school buses and other assets.

If the negotiations become heated, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.