Friday, September 12, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Vote Tuesday in Jacksonville

A standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district is finally within our grasp.

A vote Tuesday on the school election ballot for a new district will give us control of our schools and is the best possible shot at revitalizing the Jacksonville area, which has languished even as neighboring Cabot, Ward, Austin, Lonoke and Beebe, where schools are better, have flourished.

It’s easy to confuse movement with progress, but make no mistake, this is the way forward.

A three-strand braid runs through the heart of Jacksonville — support for Little Rock Air Force Base, desire for more and better education for its residents and an unquenchable thirst for a public school district of our own.

Jacksonville has partnered — we taxed ourselves $5 million — with the Air Force to build the new Joint Education Center, the college collaboration that now stands outside the base’s fence near Vandenberg Boulevard. Our community has worked for three decades to get its own school district to better educate its children and to grow the community. The Air Force will contribute land for a new elementary school and the Defense Department may help pay for it. The Air Force may make available about 300 acres for the new high school we will surely build when a standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district is formed.

There is no organized opposition to the new district. The Pulaski County Special School District, the state Board of Education, a federal district judge and Jacksonville advocates all consider this a win-win situation, one which will help the beleaguered PCSSD to satisfy the desegregation agreement. The Joshua Intervenors have accepted it, too.

Years ago, the PCSSD board approved an independent Jacksonville district if the federal court overseeing desegregation would allow it and voters approved it.

Earlier this year, as part of the School Desegregation Agreement Settlement, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. agreed that Jacksonville and north Pulaski County could seek its own district.

Interim PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess said his district can more easily become unitary in school facilities if Jacksonville detaches because the district will have fewer buildings to construct and finance. And the state Board of Education also approved a vote on the matter.

While PCSSD has to pay almost the full cost of new school construction, Jacksonville will only have to pay maybe 45 percent, with the state picking up the lion’s share. That’s because Jacksonville is considered a low-income area in the wealth index. On Tuesday, people who live within the boundaries of the proposed new district can seize control of our destiny and make history. While consolidation and annexation of school districts is not uncommon in Arkansas, no one can recall the creation of a new district from part of an old one — ever.

A “for” vote on the school election ballot for detaching Jacksonville gives us control of our schools and the education of our children for the first time in 38 years.

Not only will a Jacksonville/north Pulaski district result in new and improved buildings in an area that hasn’t seen a new school in about 30 years, we believe a new school board will be responsive to the city’s needs and education will improve.

This will also help stem the tide of migration away from Jacksonville to Cabot, Austin and Ward. We can put Jacksonville back on an upward trajectory.

There is no significant downside to detaching from PCSSD. Instead of having two votes on a seven-member PCSSD school board, we would have seven votes on a seven-member Jacksonville-area school board.

There will almost certainly be only one first-rate high school in the district, but the tough competition with out-of-town schools for money to build new ones in Jacksonville will finally be over.

Area voters will have only two issues on the ballot:

1.) Create an independent school district, For or Against

2.) and confirming the current school millage rate of 40.7 mills.

Please note — that is not a millage increase. Whether Jacksonville splits or stays with PCSSD, it will have a 40.7-mil property tax for schools.

Following a 299-word legal description of the proposed district’s boundaries, the Proposition on the Creation of a Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district reads:

“On the proposition of the creation of a new school district by this proposed detachment of property and territory from the Pulaski County Special School District, I vote:

( ) For

( ) Against”

If we fail to support the new district, Jacksonville-area schools will remain part of PCSSD. We will remain for now in fiscal distress, run by the state. After that, we stand the risk of being governed by a PCSSD school board as dysfunctional and divisive as the old one. Never again.