Friday, August 08, 2014

TOP STORY >> New district to get push at meeting on Monday

Leader staff writer

Education Corps — the group advocating for a standalone Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district — will host its first town-hall meeting about the Sept. 16 election at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the community center, 5 Municipal Drive.

The election will ask voters to approve of detaching from the Pulaski County Special School District.

In anticipation of the measure being passed, the state Board of Education will “probably” approve at its Aug. 14 meeting a committee to review volunteers interested in being appointed to serve on a seven-member interim school board for the new district.

That is according to state Education Commissioner Toney Wood.

He said Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) was involved in selecting those committee members.

Perry said he would serve on the committee and that the other members would be local elected officials.

He named as potential committee members state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), Pulaski County JP Bob John-son, who is running as a Demo-crat for Perry’s seat (Perry is term-limited); state Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), state Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) and Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher.

Perry noted that most of those state legislators represent a piece of the new school district’s proposed territory — 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.

The new district will serve 4,000 students.

Perry added that he plans to attend the Education Corps meeting on Monday.

He also said, “I think it’s going to be a great move for us, give us local control. It’s something we’ve been working on for 30 years. It’s finally coming to reality.”

Perry noted that tax dollars would stay local rather than go to other schools in the vast PCSSD, which sprawls across 729 square miles and serves more than 17,000 students.

Wood said the state board would likely take formal action approving the separation and formation of a new district at its 10 a.m. meeting on Oct. 9, providing that voters approve the detachment as expected.

He also said the board would be charged with appointing the interim school board at that meeting.

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

Gray has said the 2014-15 school year would be transitional.

Wood told The Leader that it was “extraordinary” for a new school district to be formed when the trend has been to consolidate school districts statewide.

He said he supported Jacksonville’s detachment in the sense that communities and locally elected patrons of those communities could provide opportunities that would best educate the children of that community.

“Jacksonville patrons have worked long and hard in pursuing the identity of a new school district,” Wood added.

The next steps include dividing up assets like buses and computers, figuring out how to share PCSSD’s debt and placing personnel.

But, for now, the Education Corps intends to stay focused on spreading the word about the Sept. 16 election.

Two town-hall meetings, one at the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club and one at or near Bayou Meto Elementary School in north Pulaski County have been discussed in planning sessions. But dates and times have not been set.

Another advantage of the detachment, according to a news release, is the chance to expand curriculum.

At a recent planning meeting, an Education Corps member asked what she should tell parents who ask her about plans to combine Jacksonville and North Pulaski high schools into one campus.

Gray told her that the benefits of merging the two schools are financial.

“We’ll be able to do more with everybody in one place. We can offer more stuff. There’s so much savings,” he said. “We can do so much more for our kids.”

Also, tax dollars going into one district and to one high school will be a benefit in that it puts everyone “on the same page,” Gray noted during the meeting.

If the high schools are combined, the new district could construct just one facility and move the middle school to a current high school, he said.

Former state Rep. Pat Bond (D-Jacksonville), who sponsored legislation that allowed for Jacksonville’s separation from PCSSD, added that going to a high school with a very diverse population was beneficial to her children.

But, Martha Whatley said, “Right now, a lot of things we want to change, a lot of things we want to do. It’s not the time. Right now, it’s time to win an election with the idea that then we deal with options. But, if we can’t keep people on target with the same message and keep it moving, it will fall apart.”

The members agreed that they should focus on making sure the public knows they want to have greater influence over the decisions the school board makes and who serves on that board — a goal that can be accomplished by establishing an independent district.

Whatley chimed into that discussion with “We don’t want it. We will have it.”

She said the campaign’s message should stress inclusion and the need for everyone to work together toward the common goal of detaching from PCSSD.

Another message was that an independent school district would give the community a stronger voice. JP Bob Johnson, who is running for state representative in House District 42, said, “We’ve got no voice now.”

Celeste Williams, the group’s internal communications chairwoman, said parental involvement in the classrooms must be nurtured and welcomed when the new district becomes a reality.

Bobby Kelly of the Little Rock-based Markham Group, which was hired to help the grassroots group, reminded the members that the talking points they have discussed will be repeated and that what they need to be doing once the campaign kicks off is “singing from the same sheet of music.”

In another of the campaign group’s planning sessions, he told Education Corps members that participants in a telephone poll were asked whether they would support the detachment if the election were held the same day as the poll.

Of the 409 registered voters who were polled, 71 percent said they would vote for the detachment. Of that, 92 percent said they wouldn’t change their minds, Kelly added.

Only 7 percent were against the detachment, and 41 percent of those were willing to change their minds, he said.

And 22 percent were undecided when asked how they would vote, Kelly noted.

Thirty years in the making, detachment from PCSSD has been associated with false starts and false hope for proponents in the past.

But, in January, all parties — PCSSD, the state and the Joshua Intervenors — approved a desegregation agreement that said Jacksonville could detach from PCSSD without negatively impacting the remaining elements of the court-supervised desegregation settlement.

Then U.S. District Judge Price Marshall signed off on that agreement.

On Feb. 16, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel agreed with the state Board of Education that Jacksonville’s petition for a vote and supporting documents were sufficient.

McDaniel, PCSSD Super-intendent Jerry Guess and others have called the detachment a win-win, as the most difficult area in which PCSSD has not been declared unitary —desegregated — is facilities.

Removing Jacksonville’s dilapidated buildings from the mix would help PCSSD reach its goal of being released from court supervision, and the new district would qualify for about a 50-percent match in state funds to build new schools.

PCSSD qualifies for almost no match.

The new district is also expected to ask voters for a millage increase to build new schools, but its rate will be the same as that of PCSSD — 40 mills — when the separation goes through.

City leaders have supported neighborhood schools for decades, blaming Jacksonville’s decline in population on the condition of Jacksonville-area schools.