Tuesday, November 18, 2014

TOP STORY >> History made with district’s first meeting

Leader senior staff writer

Sworn in Monday evening, the first-ever Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District Board unanimously elected Daniel Gray its president.

Ron McDaniel was elected vice president and Carol Miles secretary.

The state Board of Education created the new district and approved the seven-member board Thursday.

Moments after the new board adjourned its Monday meeting, former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester said he’d be interested in serving as interim superintendent.


Lester, a PCSSD administrator for more than 30 years — half of that as superintendent — is widely respected and trusted by many area residents, and has long worked behind the scenes to help create the new, standalone district.

“I’m not interested in anything long-term,” he told The Leader, “but in the interim.”

Lester, a Jacksonville resident, is a consultant for McPherson/Jacobson, a national executive recruitment and development group that specializes in superintendent searches and salary studies, and has done both in the past for central Arkansas districts.


Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Bob Johnson swore in the board, which also in-cludes Norris Cain, Richard

Moss, Robert Price and LaConda Watson.

Local elected officials recommended the new board members from more than 50 applicants. They are noteworthy for the expertise they bring, according to state Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), who chaired the selection committee.

Gray and McDaniel also serve on the PCSSD advisory board — which, in lieu of a PCSSD board, makes salary and other recommendations to State Education Commissioner Tony Woods and hears grievances and student suspensions and expulsions.

Since the state took over PCSSD in 2012, dismissed the board and fired Superintendent Charles Hopson, the state Education Commissioner —then Tom Kimbrell, now Tony Woods — has served as a one-man school board.

The board asked PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess to contact Woods for some help in identifying qualified applicants for the job.

After electing officers, the board’s first action was to hire Patrick Wilson of Wright, Lindsey and Jennings as its attorney. Wilson has worked for a standalone Jacksonville school district since 2009, attending virtually every meeting, conference and court date.


Wilson thanked the board and said, “I cannot imagine a possible better use for my law degree than to help Jacksonville (get its own school district).”

The board also voted to hold regular meetings at 6:30 p.m. the first Monday of each month at Jacksonville City Hall.

As for the hiring of an interim superintendent and an assistant, Gray said, “We need to take our time.” Price said, “I’d like to slow down the superintendent process — don’t want to rush it.”

Guess, who will act as superintendent of the Jacksonville- North Pulaski District until it hires its own, encouraged the board to move forward on hiring a superintendent “with experience, one who understands the many facets of the job and who gets up in the morning ready to do more today than yesterday.”

He said there was a lot of work to be done, and suggested they act with some dispatch.


Currently, the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District has no money of its own. But, as part of the desegregation agreement settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall, Guess and his staff will pay bills and salaries and provide support services until the new district can stand on its own, with its own revenues.

By the same token, until that time, the tax and per-student minimum foundation aid for the new district will continue to be part of PCSSD’s revenue stream.

The two districts have a lot to work out in the one to two years they have to complete detachment and stand up a school district.

“There are several things to be done quickly,” Guess told the board. “Setting up board zones, determining the millage rate, the tax base of the district and profiling the district staff — how many administrators, teachers, secretaries, bus drivers (plus) a salary schedule that will attract and keep employees — are critical challenges that haven’t been done before because never before has a new school district been created in Arkansas.”


“You got new ground to plow,” Guess said. “I have the utmost respect for someone who can come in and begin to guide you and dig out answers to those questions.

“Time is of the essence,” Guess added. “Every day is important. You cannot afford a wasted day between now and the day Jacksonville-North Pulaski welcomes students.”

Price suggested that the group go through team building exercises as soon as possible, but Arkansas School Board Association staff lawyer Kristen Garner said it might be good to wait until they had an interim superintendent hired.

She told the board that, despite common perception, sometimes by school board members themselves, “The board doesn’t run a school district. It is over policy.”

The superintendent runs the district and administrators run the schools, Garner said. Using a building analogy, she continued, “You are the architects; administrators are the workers.

“I assume you’ll be called the Jacksonville School Board, but you may decide otherwise,” she noted.

Actually, the order signed by state Board of Education Chair Sam Ledbetter created the Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School Board.


“Many of you may be on the eventual school board,” Garner said, “and you’ll have to deal with people who believe you run the district.”

She also said, “One of the enemies of a highly effective board is geocentric or other groups, like businesses, teachers or others that will be divisive, not productive.

“That is at the root of much dysfunction,” Garner said. “Guard against that. Discover your shared values.”

Gray promised her that many on the board had seen that in action with previous PCSSD school boards, which — by most accounts — were dysfunctional.

Garner also warned against improper communication among school board members. “It’s a Freedom of Information violation,” she said. Garner also passed out FOI handbooks.

They cannot discuss matters amongst themselves outside of meetings, Garner warned.

In the past, some board members drove to the PCSSD Central Office almost daily, trying to micromanage and control the superintendent.

Garner warned against subcommittees of the board, saying they were fraught with opportunities to violate the FOI. She also said that answering a board member or superintendent’s email with a “reply all” would also constitute an FOI violation.

“I would assume PCSSD policies are your policies until you adopt your own,” she also told the board.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “People are expecting great things of you...You were chosen for your hearts and your brains.”


Of Lester’s interest in the job, Gray said, “Lester has been an integral part of the process. He helped us get to this point and was influential behind the scenes. It would be silly not to use that expertise.”

Gray noted that most superintendents are currently under contract, and it’s possible that Lester could be “an interim-interim superintendent,” helping get the district started without committing to a two-year interim superintendency.

“We need somebody who is going to work for us every day so we can transition and be on our own sooner. Someone with passion and a hunger.”

Gray seemed to imply that perhaps Lester could act as superintendent while the board takes the time to locate a long-term interim superintendent.