Friday, March 21, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Historic day on Sept. 16

Jacksonville residents will vote to leave the Pulaski County Special District on Sept. 16. That historic moment will be the culmination of decades of work by dedicated community members who have long fought to part ways with the Little Rock-based district that hasn’t built a new school here in about 30 years. PCSSD’s academics have suffered and its finances have been in disarray for years, sending families to prospering schools in Cabot, Beebe and Lonoke.

That should change when Jacksonville voters approve local control of their schools. After decades of declining enrollment in the Pulaski County Special School District, Jacksonville and parts of north Pulaski County will have approximately 4,400 students and the chance to build a new high school and perhaps even a new elementary school.

Residents will begin to see modern school campuses that will become a source of community pride. The rundown facilities that PCSSD for decades neglected to make repairs and renovations to will soon become a distant memory.

This is the community’s greatest achievments since the opening of Little Rock Air Force Base in 1955. A 30-year effort is finally paying off.

At least three generations of Jacksonville residents have campaigned for the creation of a separate school district, including former Representatives Pat and Will Bond, who pushed legislation through allowing Jacksonville to leave the Pulaski County Special School District. Let’s also credit younger people like attorney Patrick Wilson and Realtor Daniel Gray for getting the issue through the courts and the state Board of Education.

The late Ben Rice, the prominent Jacksonville attorney, did yeoman work for decades. In 2008, he presented petitions from Jacksonville residents to the Pulaski County School Board calling for a split. Alderman Reedie Ray and many others helped circulate those petitions.

Rice, who passed away in 2013, didn’t live to see the results of his hard work in behalf of the children and parents of north Pulaski County. About a year before Rice died, he visited the paper. He was looking for an old story of ours about the new Sylvan Hills Middle School that cost an astonishing $31.5 million.

He said the school could have been built much cheaper and Jacksonville needed and deserved a new school. For comparison, Cabot built a new Cabot Junior High North for $13.5 million in 2009.

Another project that Rice would have objected to was the new Maumelle High School that cost more than $56 million.

Critics complained to the school board that PCSSD couldn’t afford such grandiose projects. The district kept running at a deficit, and the state Education Department took it over in 2011. The department will continue to run the district for two more years.

Interim Superintendent Jerry Guess is straightening out the district’s finances in hopes of improving its schools and bringing back an elected school board. By the time he gets that done, Jacksonville should have its own district.

Guess said this week he will need to cut $20 million from the budget in the next three years. He’s making preparations for the loss of millions in property taxes after Jacksonville departs and desegregation funding ends.

He’s made some cuts since he took over three years ago, but more are expected, such as technology and speech classes. It was predictable that academics would eventually suffer even more after the free-spending ways of the old board members.

A Jacksonville school board will give the city a fresh start.

The community paid for two feasibility studies, and a third study was paid for with a $250,000 state appropriation sponsored by Will Bond. He also secured $750,000 to pay the school district’s legal fees toward ending the long-running desegregation lawsuit.

We’re glad state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell of Cabot chose Guess for this difficult task, both have been key supporters of letting Jacksonville form its own school district.

Many others deserve praise for their work: Martha Whatley, Merlene McGhee, Pat O'brien, Greg Bollen, Deana Toney, Bob Stroud, Ivory Tillman and former Mayor Tommy Swaim. Bishop James Bolden, Ron McDaniel and Pat Griggs chipped in along the way as did Jody Urquhart.

Former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester, a living legend, has also done important work in behalf of the proposed district. Let’s hope someone will nominate him as superintendent of Jacksonville schools.

The city will soon begin the hard work of rebuilding and restoring residents’ confidence in its local schools.