Friday, March 21, 2014

TOP STORY >> Vote set for Jacksonville schools

Leader senior staff writer

By bedtime on Sept. 16, Jacksonville and north Pulaski County residents living within the boundaries of the proposed new stand-alone school district will know whether or not they are going to carve a district of their own from the sprawling Pulaski County Special School District.

The state Board of Education on Thurs-day unanimously voted to allow proponents to put the issue on the ballot. Daniel Gray, president of the Jacksonville/north Pulaski County Education Corps, said his group intended to get it on the annual education election ballot Sept. 16. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

The board congratulated Jacksonville for the persistence and skill with which they have pursued their goal over the decades.

“I’m going to turn somersaults in the street if this thing passes,” Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said Friday.

Thirty years in the making, detachment from PCSSD has seen false starts and false hope for proponents in the past, but just since the beginning of this year, some important things have happened.

In January, all parties to the desegregation settlement agreement — including PCSSD, the state and the Joshua Intervenors — expressly agreed that Jacksonville could detach from PCSSD without negatively impacting the remaining elements of the court-supervised desegregation settlement.

Soon after, U.S. District Judge Price Marshall signed off on that agreement, including that stipulation.

Then on Feb. 16, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel agreed with the state Board of Education that Jacksonville’s petition and supporting documents were sufficient and that ruling on the agreement cleared the way for both the vote and a subsequent Jacksonville-area district.

McDaniel’s opinion concluded: “All parties to the case have agreed that the state board’s approval of this district will not have a negative impact on the desegregation of PCSSD. We also note that the supporters of a Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district have expressed an intent to be bound by the desegregation obligations of the PCSSD that remain at the time of detachment.

“Perhaps the most difficult of the areas in which PCSSD is not yet unitary — desegregated — is in facilities, and the detachment of a Jacksonville district is considered a win-win situation there. Not only would PCSSD no longer be responsible for rebuilding Jacksonville-area schools, but Jacksonville and north Pulaski, considered less affluent that Pulaski County, would qualify for about a 50 percent match in state funds for construction of all academic facilities. PCSSD qualifies for almost no state match.

“The acceptance of the settlement agreement has provided the approval of the state board to proceed. Therefore, it is no longer necessary for the state Board to wait for any further federal court guidance,” the attorney general wrote.

Of the board’s Thursday approval, “It felt fantastic,” said Education Corps attorney Patrick Wilson, a graduate of Jacksonville High School. “It means we’re going to get to vote, to decide our own fate, and we’re going to get to have our own school district.

“Jacksonville has not been able to grow the way it would if it had had its own school district,” Wilson said. “Now folks are looking at moving to Jacksonville that wouldn’t have without the possibility of a school district.

“So it means everything.”

PCSSD enrollment has declined dramatically over the past decade, only recently beginning to increase again. Jacksonville’s population has been stagnant for 20 years, and actually declined a bit in the 2010 census.

But city leaders, as they have for decades, say the town has a lot of positives. They believe Jacksonville will grow again once it builds trust and new facilities.

“This is going to be a turning point for our city,” Fletcher said Friday morning. “Education is an important thing to young families.

“We haven’t had a new school in 43 years,” he noted.

Fletcher said this effort has been going on so long that several of the leaders — most recently perhaps attorney Ben Rice — have died.

It was Rice in 2008 who petitioned the PCSSD board for a resolution endorsing the standalone district, a resolution it eventually received.

“We’re not going to take it for granted,” the mayor said. “At one time we had some of the best schools around. We’ve seen the district pick it apart, and we’re ready to get back to quality and local control.

“But it starts with the involvement of parents and community,” he said.

The law allows up to a two-year transition period, according to Gray. Until the actual separation, PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess will lead both districts.

PCSSD is in fiscal distress, the state dissolved its school board and appointed Guess superintendent. It is likely that the fiscal distress designation — unlike the desegregation requirements — would not attach itself to the new district.

Gray said, for the 2014-15 school year, Guess would certainly be superintendent of both districts.

“We need to make sure everyone is aware of the date of the election, the benefits of local control and the (positive) impact upon facilities. We need to make sure they turn out the vote,” Gray said.

He hopes the city will use the emergency management phone system to make sure everyone knows when to vote.

“We’re one step closer to local control, “ Gray said. “Our own district will provide some unity in the community, bring us together and instill a sense of pride, but the biggest challenges are ahead of us. Some of it we’ll figure out as we go.”

Guess said, “This has never happened anywhere else (in Arkansas) before.” There have been all sorts of consolidations, but never one district split into two.

If area residents approve formation of the new district, the first item of business will be for the state Board of Education to appoint an interim seven-member school board, according to Guess.

Metroplan is expected to have determined seven board zones by then.

Representatives of both districts will have to divide up the buses, the computer, apportion the debt and figure out how to deal with teachers, administrators and other employees.

That’s complicated by the fact that an appointed school board doesn’t currently have the authority to hire teachers or other employees — including a superintendent.

Guess pointed out that a new session of the General Assembly will convene about halfway through the next school year and laws could be crafted and passed to change that.

“Meanwhile, if I’m going to lose 4,400 kids and $35 million, we have to reduce spending to have a balanced budget — and the most expensive part is people.”

What Guess didn’t say was that any reduction in pay or number of employees is likely to bring PCSSD into conflict yet again with its employee unions, which are not currently recognized as bargaining agents. But they still wield power, and members seem to control the personnel policy committees.

“This is an uncharted process,” Guess said. “We’ll take the next step, then determine what’s next.”

Former state representative Pat Bond said, “I think we have a long journey ahead of us, but it’s a task we can do if we do it right.” She is among those who have worked longest toward a local school district. “It’s a different task,” Bond said. “The issues have changed. I think we have a real opportunity to make a mark on education.

“Before, we had a vibrant school in place,” Bond said Friday. “We had really good teachers, a good curriculum, a well-balanced student body — all of those things. We do have an opportunity to take some kids and give them the kind of education they deserve. If we can do that, people will see us as a place they want to come to live and put their children in the school.”

Bond said, now, the new district would need not only to rebuild facilities but to rebuild the education, expectation and pride as well.

It will take a lot of money to rebuild and remodel Jackson-ville-area schools. PCSSD is expected to ask soon for an increase in school millage property tax. Whatever PCSSD’s millage — currently it’s about 40 mills — at the time of a detachment. That will be the new district’s millage rate until such a time as a new board proposes a new millage and patrons vote on it at a school election.