Saturday, April 12, 2014

TOP STORY >> Group wants school board to run PCSSD

Leader staff writer

Nineteen people on Thursday evening aired their concerns about paying taxes and not having an elected school board due to the state’s recently prolonged takeover of the Pulaski County Special School District.

Among those who attended the first meeting of a new grassroots group at the Bill Harmon Recreation Center in Sherwood were term-limited state Dist. 41 Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood); Danny Knight, who is running for Nickels’ seat, and Sherwood Alderman Mike Sanders, a member of the Sherwood Public Education Foundation Committee that is leading the city’s effort to detach and form its own district.

Meredith Poland, a Clinton Elementary School parent who helped organize an effort to lobby against cuts to the technology and speech communications programs there and the laying off of home-school counselors districtwide, agreed to head the new group.

Nickels said there isn’t support for a legislative solution to the no-representation issue. But he suggested that the taxpayers focus on convincing the state Board of Education that PCSSD is not in fiscal distress. The board recently voted to continue the takeover for one more year.

Another Clinton Elementary School parent, Tina Lee, said she thought parents were relieved when the state took charge in 2011 to straighten out obvious problems. But those who are aware of the situation now are frustrated, Lee said.

The parent argued that the continued takeover is unnecessary because the last legislative audit of PCSSD was good.

Lee said the state Board of Education, according to its online packet of documents, had an outdated audit when they voted to keep the district under state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell’s control for another year.

Kimbrell has appointed a Community Advisory Board to help him with student discipline hearings, employee grievances and make recommendations concerning other actions.

Before Nickels spoke, Sanders announced that the feasibility required by state law would be released at the end of this month or early next month. But the alderman clarified that a detachment would take several years.

Nickels said city officials “missed the boat” by talking about the detachment rather than intervening in the desegregation proceedings.

The judge said Sherwood wasn’t a party in the 1989 case. Then he approved a settlement that allows Jacksonville but no other district to break away before PCSSD is declared unitary.

The representative also pointed out that the state law would have to change to allow a Sherwood detachment because, when Jacksonville leaves, PCSSD won’t have the 15,000 enrollment required for any part of it to detach.

Pam Fitzgiven, who identified herself only as a tax payer who lives in Sherwood, kicked off the meeting by asking those who attended what they had to say. She said, “Basically they can spend the money (and) make whatever cuts they want to without our input.”

Lee said, “We’ve seen nothing but cuts at our school for the last three years. This year the cuts are going to start impacting the children’s ability to learn. I think that it’s an uphill battle but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

She also said the district is tearing the schools down “brick by brick” by making cuts until all they do is meet the minimum state requirements.

The district will lose $20 million a year after 2017-18 because of the desegregation settlement. But Lee pointed out there will be savings from not having to meet desegregation requirements, so PCSSD will have to cut less than that.

A home-school counselor, who received a termination letter because those positions are part of the cuts effective next year, agreed. The counselor said, “My job directly impacts student achievement, student learning…I have a caseload of about 110 but I service the entire school.”

The counselor asked to remain unnamed in The Leader, but told those at the meeting that home-school counselors make sure kids have supplies and other necessities, like food.

The counselor said, “When the district did this big cut a few years ago that said, you know, after three charges, students can’t eat, I have to make that happen some kind of way. Our kids still have to eat. They’re still on our campuses, and they’re still charged with learning. But I feel like we’re setting them up for failure.”

Sandra Eldridge said the district is laying her and other instructional facilitators off but allowing them to reapply for the same positions. The application process is two phases, and she said it doesn’t make sense to her.

“When does it stop? When do they stop playing with the lives of people?” the former Educator of the Year recipient asked.

Eldridge said she paid for and completed the professional development PCSSD required her to have. Then district officials chose not to reimburse her for it, she noted. Eldridge said she lost between $5,000 and $6,000 because of their decision.

Judy Lambertus and Fitzgiven said former administrator Linda Remele told teachers, during the district’s first year of Common Core implementation that, if they didn’t like it, they could go to Texas or Walmart. Remele has since retired, and she co-chairs the detachment committee.

Fitzgiven said at the meeting, “We have worked under that kind of thinking. Instead of building us up and making us feel like we’re worth something and trying to get us involved in what they’re doing, they have steadily, it’s like a divide and conquer.”

Former PCSSD school board member Gloria Law-rence asked where her tax money is going and how much of it would fund new Jacksonville/North Pulaski school buildings before the neighboring city detaches to form its own district.

Parent Chris Nash complained that students are using antiquated books. His son lost a book and the school didn’t have a replacement, Nash said.

Officials had to requisition one from another district, and Nash bought the book outright.

The parent said that means, “The (tax) money is not being spent where it needs to be.”

He told those at the meeting that school officials couldn’t say why they were using antiquated textbooks when students are going to be tested next year on the new Common Core curriculum.

Lee said that she, Nash and other parents have no option other than sending their kids to private schools or moving because PCSSD is exempt from the School Choice Act.

Sherwood will suffer if families move to cities in more desirable school districts, she pointed out.