Friday, August 15, 2014

EDITORIAL >> School-year excitement

As students return to school on Monday and Jacksonville voters count down to Sept. 16 to form their own district, we can’t recall a more exciting start to any school year.

Hundreds of residents, who are tired of poor test results and dilapidated schools, attended a community meeting this week bringing enough fervor to rival even a Tea Party rally, yet still with cordiality and optimism, showing that Jacksonville’s best days are not behind us.

If there’s a case to be made that the Little Rock-based district has something to offer Jacksonville, it hasn’t been added to the conversation. We can’t think of any.

The community seems to unanimously support breaking away from PCSSD. They were relieved when the state seized control of the district three years ago because the school board members had gone off the rails — trumped-up allegations of bribe taking, phony expense-account claims and one superintendent who wrote himself a check after being fired, to name just a few — while the district was going broke on projects like the $56 million Maumelle High School and a new $31.5 million Sylvan Hills Middle School. Meanwhile, schools in Jacksonville were lucky to get a fresh coat of paint and weeds removed from gutters.

The days of being ignored, disrespected and utterly abandoned by our own school district officials will be over if voters take to the polls on Sept. 16. Remember, too, that early voting starts Sept. 9.

We thank the many dedicated community members who never gave up on their dream of forming an independent school district:

Daniel Gray, who led last week’s forum, Pat O’Brien, Greg Bollen, Martha Whatley, Merlene McGhee, Deana Toney and Ron McDaniel, the Wilson family, Aldermen Reedie Ray, James Bolden, Bob Stroud and former Mayor Tommy Swaim, as well as Mayor Gary Fletcher.

The late Ben Rice, the prominent Jacksonville attorney, did yeoman work for decades, comparing Jacksonville to the Israelites wandering in the desert. It’s too bad he didn’t live long enough to see the results of his hard work and dedication to the children of north Pulaski County.

Their efforts would likely have been quashed without the support of the state-appointed interim superintendent of PCSSD, Jerry Guess, and razor-sharp Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., who is handling the federal desegregation case. (We recall a previous judge having little understanding of the desegregation case and even less recognition of Jacksonville’s plight.) Perhaps some new schools should be named in their honor.

But when we get our own district after the election, the real work will have just begun.

There will be challenges and problems, negotiations with PCSSD over debt and assets like school buses; negotiations with teachers and probably with teachers’ unions; questions about curriculum and what new schools to build and where.

First, vote on Sept. 16 or before, and let’s show how much this means to Jacksonville.

After that, a panel that the state Board of Education approved Thursday will work to appoint the new district’s first school board.

Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), Mayor Fletcher, Rep. Doug House, who is a north Pulaski County Republican, Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), Pulaski County JP Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) and Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) will be in charge of finding qualified school board members, who will likely be many of the people who have worked hard to break away from PCSSD.

The new district will include a huge portion of north Pulaski County, extending north of Gravel Ridge to the Lonoke County line and nearly to Hwy. 5. It will include Homer Adkins Pre-K, Bayou Meto, Murrell Taylor, Pinewood, Tolleson, Arnold Drive and Warren Dupree elementary schools, Jacksonville Middle School, Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School.

Anyone with children in these schools, or merely a property owner near them, has a stake in this fight because, when schools successfully educate children, families will follow, boosting home values and ultimately improving the local economy.

Jacksonville’s future is on the line, and its residents have never had a better chance to make things fairer and more equitable.

After all, their tax dollars will no longer be sent out of town to pay for schools elsewhere if they take to the polls and vote PCSSD out of town. Our time is here.