Friday, August 29, 2014

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville plans for new school board

Leader staff writer

State Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) sparked debate at a meeting on Tuesday by suggesting that the board of a new Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district would have two at-large members.

State Sen. Linda Chester-field (D-Little Rock) hosted the gathering at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church. She and Perry are members of a committee that will review applications and make recommendations to the state Board of Education concerning who should serve on the new district’s seven-member interim school board.

But, before interim board members are appointed, residents must approve of detaching from the Pulaski County Special School District in a Sept. 16 election. Early voting starts Sept. 9.

The benefits of an independent school district are keeping tax dollars here, expanding curriculum and improved school facilities through increased availability of state aid based on the wealth index. A new district 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.

Perry said the deadline for applications is Sept. 30 for those who want serve on the interim board.

The committee of elected officials, which also includes state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), state Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), Pulaski County JP Bob Johnson and Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, will submit recommendations to the state Board of Education at its Oct. 9 meeting.

Daniel Gray, spokesman for Education Corps, the group advocating for the detachment, explained that a board consisting of five members representing five zones and two at-large members representing everyone in the new school district is just one of three options allowed by state law.

The other options are a board with seven members representing seven zones and a board with five members representing five zones, he said.

Gray said the interim board would be tasked with deciding the zones and what kind of elected board the new school district will have.

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.

Chesterfield and others at the meeting, including Ivory Tillman of the city’s NAACP chamber, were concerned that having two at-large members would discourage minority representation.

Tillman said more than 50 percent of the minority students in PCSSD attend schools in Jacksonville.

He also said he was reassured by state Education Commissioner Tony Wood and his predecessor, Tom Kimbrell, that the interim board would reflect the diversity of Jacksonville. That was when the NAACP chapter was encouraged to submit names for consideration, not applications.

“We felt that the minorities should have equal input in that selection on that interim board. But, as it stands now, I don’t know whether we’re going to get that now or not,” Tillman said.

On the at-large idea, Chesterfield noted that she didn’t know of a school board in the state with that setup. Chesterfield pointed out that the Little Rock City Council is organized with two at-large members and those seats have not been filled by minority representatives.

But Gray and Alderman James Bolden voiced support for the 5-2 school board.

Bolden explained, “The reason I disagree (with Chesterfield) is because this is a military town. I’m retired 24 and a half years. Some of you all out there are retired. We want representation on the board. The two at large seats give us a balance.”

And Gray said, “We want unity. And, from the get go, we want minority representation. We want diversity on our school board.”

A couple of people said the base might not be here in 10 years, but the Gray scoffed at the idea of the state’s sixth largest employer being moved elsewhere.

Chesterfield said military families could still be served if Little Rock Air Force Base was designated as one of seven zones.

Another resident said the area needed to look at how the Cabot School District operates and draw from that in the formation of the new district.

Several at the meeting were worried about PCSSD running both districts during the transitional period.

Perry said the interim board would likely appoint an interim superintendent to work under Guess while Gray explained that the transition is more about establishing the new district as a legal entity that can put tax dollars to use.

Gray also thought the interim board would hire an interim superintendent.

He said, “The Jacksonville/north Pulaski District needs its own master to be equal. (But) We trust Dr. Guess...He’s done more in the last three years than has happened in a long time.”

The interim Jackson-ville/north Pulaski superintendent will not be former PCSSD superintendent Bobby Lester.

Lester said he’s too old for such an undertaking, and that’s why he turned down the position Guess is in when he was offered it after taking over PCSSD for three months in 2011. That was when the state took the fiscally distressed district over.

But he recalled losing 51 square miles of PCSSD and 14 schools to the Little Rock School District while he was superintendent. He, another superintendent and two school boards had to divide assets and make decisions about personnel.

“And that all worked out. It was hard work to get through it all, but we’ll work all this out,” Lester said. “We don’t need to worry about some of these things because it’ll happen. It’s just going to take time. It’s going to take cooperation.”

The former superintendent encouraged those at the meeting to trust and have faith in the people who have been working behind the scenes, like he has, to make the detachment a reality.

Another issue discussed was where teachers who work in Jacksonville schools will go. Advocates have said before that salary schedules would at least stay the same to remain competitive.

The rest is yet another decision the interim board, and possibly the elected board that comes next, will deal with.
But Lester said in that Little Rock School District split, teachers were allowed a choice of where to go and requests were weighed by seniority.

One resident was concerned about the committee Chesterfield is a member of would lead to “the elected electing the elected.”

The senator responded, “I’m probably the individual who knows the least about all of you. And so what I will be doing is looking at the application as honestly and as objectively as I possibly can. Now, Mr. (Mark) Perry has the advantage of knowing this area. But Mrs. (Jane) English doesn’t know this area. Mr. (Doug) House may know it. But Mr. (Eddie Joe) Williams is in Cabot. Mrs. (Jane) English is in North Little Rock. I’m in Little Rock, so I think that the committee can be basically objective.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight. This is your school district. This is what you have wanted all these years. My only job now is to look as dispassionately as possible at the nominees or the persons who nominate themselves and make as good a judgment as I possibly can…I’m not coming in with an preconceived ideas.”

Chesterfield added that she hoped the same was true of Perry.

Perry reminded the room that this is the first time something like this has been done. “We’ve got a lot of work today, a lot of new work, and it’s a learning place,” he said.

Chesterfield added later that anyone can run for office and she faced many obstacles herself being a teacher who started “without a dime” and had worked fields until developing asthma.

Male legislators didn’t invite women to meetings they had in the mornings when she was first elected, but the senator said she was raised with three brothers and attended them anyway.

Chesterfield told the concerned resident, “If you want to be involved, make yourself involved…You cannot complain unless you decide for yourself that you’re going to be in the meeting.”

And Tillman said, “Every-body should be involved…Together we can move a lot further than we can divided.”

Education Corps volunteer coordinator Jada Ellis said the group was in need of people to make phone calls, distributes signs, hold signs at the polls and campaign for the Sept. 16 election in other ways.

Celeste Williams, internal communications chairwoman for Education Corps, asked if elected officials — like aldermen — could serve on the interim board. The senator said they could if they gave up their current seats.

She also asked why the powers that be allowed Jacksonville to be neglected for years. Chesterfield said she wouldn’t apologize for that because it wasn’t her fault but admitted that poor administrators have plagued the area.

Then the senator said, “But that’s the past. You have a great opportunity now going forward. Let’s deal with it, OK?”

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “This is very, very important to our city…I was very embarrassed of our schools. Our children deserve better.”

He stressed that we need to “keep our priorities straight. It’s about kids first, not about us adults.”

Fletcher also said, “This is an investment that will return big dividends to the community.”

Chesterfield concluded the meeting with a Fredrick Douglas quote: “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

She also said, “We’ve never had a brand new school district. So it’s an exciting thing and we’re going to have discourse. We’re going to have disagreement sand agreement. But ultimately we will come together and compromise to do what’s best for this district.”