Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TOP STORY >> District supporters upbeat on election

Leader senior staff writer

Part informative, part pep rally and part camp meeting, a gathering of about 400 people crowded into the Jacksonville Community Center on Monday night to kick off the effort to get voter approval for a stand-alone Jacksonville-north Pulaski County school district.

In an effort first envisioned 36 years ago, and with early architects of a Jacksonville district like former state Rep. Pat Bond (D-Jacksonville) sitting quietly — but not unacknowledged — in the crowd, more recent leaders, such as Jacksonville Education Corps president Daniel Gray, state Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), former Pulaski County Special School District board members Pat O’Brien and Alderman James Bolden, current Citizens Advisory Board member Ronald McDaniel and Jacksonville NAACP chairman Ivory Tillman spoke with fervor in favor of the proposed district. (See editorial, p. 8A.)

“I’m excited,” Bond said after the meeting. “I never thought I’d see this.”

It was Pat Bond, who, in 2001, passed legislation allowing the city to form a separate school district. Later, her son and successor, state Rep. Will Bond (D-Jacksonville), passed legislation to pay for a feasibility study and also to pay some attorneys’ fees toward resolving the desegregation settlement.

Also acknowledged, post-mortem, was Jacksonville attorney Ben Rice, who was a tireless advocate. Rice died in March 2013.

Pat Bond’s first meeting, at Jacksonville Elementary School in 1978, raised $125 toward getting a new district.

RAISED $4,000

Monday night, with the aid of professional plate passers like Rev. Bolden, the crowd ponied up $4,000 toward printing literature and signs urging registered voters living in the proposed district to vote for it when the school election is held Sept. 16.

The district includes 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.

Early voting for the school election begins Sept. 9. If the measure passed, the law allows for up to a two-year transition period. Until the actual separation, PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess will lead both districts. Gray has said the 2014-15 school year would be transitional.

The first vote on this issue was also set for Sept. 16, 12 years to the day before this year’s election. It was cancelled by U.S. Dist. Judge Bill Wilson after the oftenly-fractious PCSSD School Board challenged the detachment election in court.

In all, new district proponents ordered and paid for five feasibility studies, all of which concluded that Jacksonville could afford its own district, won’t harm desegregation efforts and PCSSD could afford to do without it.


In fact, the most recent study showed that PCSSD could get unitary status in the desegregation case faster without Jacksonville. That makes PCSSD a partner in the effort for Jacksonville detachment.

The most difficult and expensive remaining hurdle to PCSSD being declared unitary is replacement of old decrepit school buildings, many of which are in the Jacksonville area.

When the state partners with PCSSD on building a new school, it pays pretty close to nothing because Pulaski County — with Maumelle, Little Rock and North Little Rock in it — is high on the wealth index, former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester reminded the group last night. But the state will kick in 50 percent or more on approved new school buildings in the Jacksonville area, which is much lower on the index.


So, if PCSSD built a $50 million high school for Jacksonville, it would have to foot the entire bill. If a Jacksonville-north Pulaski district built the same school, it would only pay $25 million or less, with the state picking up the remaining balance.

That’s why, in April 2012, PCSSD — whose board was disbanded in June 2011 after a fiscal distress finding   —submitted a brief in favor of detachment.

Instead of Jacksonville schools getting only a tiny slice of the PCSSD facilities-expenditure pie chart, all local tax dollars will be used locally, Perry told the crowd. All school board members would also be locals. “Local control — it’s a common sense approach,” Perry said.


Gray said students would be able to have more curriculum choices than they have now.

“Our facilities are deplorable,” he said. And, speaking as a Realtor, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” noting that when people relocating to the area see Jacksonville’s cobbled together 50-year-old schools, they choose to live elsewhere, which often means Cabot.

“Our kids deserve world-class facilities,” he concluded.

McDaniel said, “We will be the decision makers on this side of the river. We will decide on spending tax dollars, on curriculum and rehabilitating facilities.”

Tillman said, “It takes a village. I’ve never seen a new district started (in Arkansas).” He’d only seen consolidation and annexation.

In asking for contributions, Gray said “We don’t just want to win, we want to win overwhelmingly.”


Jada Ellis, volunteer coordinator for the school election, asked people to sign up to make phone calls to get people to come to the polls. Aug. 18 is the last opportunity to register to vote in the school election.

In a question-and-answer period, several people wanted to know if Jacksonville would be able to afford good teachers at a competitive salary.

The feasibility study showed the district could afford teachers at the current rate. Raises or changes would be made either by the school board appointed by the state for the first year, or, after that, a local school board elected by residents, Gray said.

Bolden said, “When I was on the school board, Jacksonville had only one representative. We got screwed. We’re going to take care of our teachers.”

People also wanted to know if Jacksonville-area residents will be stuck with a remaining share of the bill for the expensive new Maumelle High School many believe was rammed down their throats. Decisions like dividing assets and debt will be made during the transitional year if the ballot measure passes.