Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TOP STORY >> School vote planned for September

Leader senior staff writer

Come Sept. 16, formation of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district is likely to be on the annual school-election ballot, with voters living within the boundaries of the proposed new district deciding the issue.

This is the closest local-school activists have gotten to that dream. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

The vote is possible following a Monday fairness hearing in which U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. overruled all objections and accepted the proposed desegregation settlement agreement crafted by officials and attorneys for the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, the state Education Department and the Joshua Intervenors — black PCSSD students. The judge found that those making objections to the settlement lacked standing in the case — that is, they would not be harmed.

“It’s a great day for the kids in Jacksonville,” Daniel Gray, spokesman for the group seeking the new district there, said Monday after Marshall accepted the negotiated desegregation settlement agreement.

“Without a doubt, this is the closest we’ve been” to getting a new district, Gray said. “We’ve been close before, but there’s always something to derail us. Now the judge has removed some unknowns.

“Now we have to figure out the next steps,” Gray said. “We hope to go to the state Board of Education in February and ask them to set an election.

“We need to get a letter from the attorney general’s office,” Gray said, “but is that all we need or do we need to file something to get the judge’s (explicit) blessing?”

City administrator Jim Durham said, “This is the best news I’ve heard about this town, bar none.”

He said he hopes young people will move to Jacksonville once it has its own school district.
“I can see Jacksonville rivaling Cabot with our schools,” Durham said, “and a demand for new housing.”

Gray said a new district would probably need to raise the school millage, but said Jacksonville taxpayers have a history of stepping up to the plate when it comes to paying for improvements.

“Taxpayers would know the money won’t be used to build schools in Maumelle,” Gray said.

In explaining his reasons for approving and final izing the desegregation agreement settlement, the judge cited the way in which all parties worked together in unity and the relative lack of opposition to the agreement.

Marshall said he was satisfied, based on documentation and testimony, that approval of the settlement would not harm unitary efforts or leave any of the districts in a financial condition likely to harm those efforts or the ability to educate the students.

The settlement ends state financial support of the three districts in this sprawling desegregation case that has reached across the years. It also allows detachment — with voter approval — of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County district from PCSSD.

Much to the displeasure of advocates for creation of a Sherwood district, the settlement explicitly prohibits formation of any other new districts until PCSSD has been declared unitary — that is desegregated.

Linda Remele and Beverly Williams of the Sherwood Education Foundation and Mayor Virginia Hillman spoke in opposition to the exclusion, but, they stressed, not in opposition to the overall settlement.


The foundation “struggled with how to move forward because we do not want to derail the settlement agreement, but we must respond for the benefit of the students and communities in the proposed Sherwood school district,” Remele said.

They were objecting to an 11th-hour stipulation in the agreement that “the state will oppose the creation of any other school districts from PCSSD’s territory until PCSSD is declared fully unitary and is released from federal court supervision.”

The settlement ends desegregation payments from the state to North Little Rock, Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts after the 2017-18 school year. Currently, the state pays those districts about $65 million a year, payments that have totaled about $1.2 billion since they began, according to Deputy Attorney General Scott Richardson.

Others who objected included a resident who said he favored the settlement but wanted to make sure PCSSD would fix and repair Jacksonville-area schools even if the detachment didn’t take place.

There were also concerns about M-to-M transfers being phased out after current enrollees graduated from high school and about out-of-district magnet school enrollees being allowed only to finish the school they attend.

For instance, a student upon finishing an elementary magnet school could not apply for enrollment in a middle school magnet.


PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess, whom Marshall quoted or cited several times during his own remarks before approving the settlement, called a Jacksonville detachment “a win-win situation.”

Detachment would not negatively impact racial balance and desegregation efforts of PCSSD, but it would actually help the district to become unitary in the area of facilities, according to Guess. That’s because Jacksonville would qualify for more state aid to build and repair those schools than PCSSD would get for the same schools.

PCSSD is high on the state wealth index, meaning it would receive almost no state matching funds to build or fix schools.

Jacksonville is much lower on the index, and the state would contribute 50 percent to 60 percent of the cost for qualifying buildings.

That means a $90 million building program to bring area schools into the 21st Century would cost the new district only about $45 million, with the state picking up the rest of the balance.


Gray said planning for the transition would begin even before the September election.
The 2014-15 school year would be transitional and Jacksonville/north Pulaski would be independent by the 2015-16 school year.

Assets and debt would have to be equitably divided between the two districts.

For instance, who gets which school buses and how many? How would teachers and staff be hired or divided? How much of the remaining desegregation money from the state would go to a new district?

The state would appoint a school board at first. Zones, which might approximate city council zones, would be created. Then school board elections could be held.

Gray said there would be meetings with architects and public meetings would be held before decisions were made on the development of a Jacksonville-area district.

He praised Marshall, saying the judge was timely and sensitive to the needs of the various parties.

“Everybody was a winner yesterday,” Gray said Tuesday.


In accordance with rule 23, Marshall said he found the settlement to be fair, reasonable and adequate.

While perseverance was not among the tests of rule 23, Marshall said he would be remiss in not noting the decades-long perseverance of those seeking a Jacksonville district.

Little Rock Air Force Base is open to making 20 acres available for a new elementary school to replace the decrepit Arnold Drive Elementary already on the base.

The base would also give the district use of another 300 acres if it wants to build a new high school campus north of the current North Pulaski High School.


And Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said the city could make the old police building available for use as an administration building.

“I think we’re all unified,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Fletcher, who was among community leaders on hand when Marshall made his ruling, said now money could go into the schoolhouse instead of the courthouse.

“For Jacksonville, it’s a way to get what everyone else had—newer and better facilities,” the mayor said.

Jacksonville has been stagnant over the past 20 years and its population declined by 46 people between 2010 and 2013.

He blamed the city’s stagnation on lack of local control over its schools and said that growth was on the horizon when the new district becomes a reality.

Marshall’s ruling did not directly affect PCSSD’s struggle toward unitary status, which is on a parallel track through Marshall’s court.

The Joshua Intervenors and PCSSD attorneys and officials are working to determine in which areas the district is not yet unitary and to resolve those issues.

Marshall has offered to appoint a judge magistrate to help mediate issues and plot a path forward.