Friday, November 14, 2014

TOP STORY >> New district up and running

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville, we have liftoff.

It took the state Board of Education less than 15 minutes Thursday to unanimously create the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District and appoint the seven-member interim school board recommended by a panel of local elected officials.

State Board of Education Chairman Sam Ledbetter signed the “Order of Creation of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District” at 10:26 a.m.

“Folks, now we officially have our own school district,” said Patrick Wilson, attorney for the Jacksonville/North Pulaski Education Corps. But festive supporters already were spilling out into the lobby, prompting Wilson to say they had “stepped on my applause line.”

The seven new board members will meet at 5 p.m. Monday at Jacksonville City Hall with Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Jerry Guess to organize and begin governance, according to Daniel Gray, a member of that board and spokesman for the Education Corps. His group carried the baton over the finish line in the 40-year relay slog toward Jacksonville school independence.

“It’s a great day, man. It’s a big day,” Gray said.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher compared the seven appointed board members to the original seven U.S. astronauts, saying, “This is our space program.”

He said he hoped they would look beyond the borders of the state, seeking out the most successful policies and programs to emulate in Jacksonville.

“We have suffered and been left out,” he said. “Now we have a fresh start.”

In addition to approving creation of the district and its interim board, the state board unanimously approved consideration for Education Department rules governing the creation of school districts by detachment — necessary because it had never happened before in Arkansas and because both Sherwood and Maumelle have signaled interest in detachment from PCSSD. That will have to wait until after the district is declared unitary and dismissed by the courts from the desegregation agreement.

The enabling order found that leaders in the effort to form the new district went through all the required steps for detachment, including petitioning the state board, procuring an opinion from the attorney general that the detachment wouldn’t negatively impact desegregation efforts, approval by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall, seeking and getting an order for election on detachment and then getting approval in that election on Sept. 16 to detach, when 95 percent of the voters supported it.

The board’s order also ratified the selection of Norris Cain, Daniel Gray, Ron McDaniel, Carol Miles, Richard Moss, Robert Price and LaConda Watson as the appointed, interim board.

The order stipulates that the new district will continue under the administration of PCSSD during a transition period of up to two years, with all revenues continuing to accrue to PCSSD, which would also bear all costs.

The two districts have 120 days after receiving orders from the federal court to jointly submit to the state board an agreed plan to:

Select and employ a superintendent of the new district.

Zone the district and prepare for election of school board members in September 2015.

Determine the millage necessary to operate the new district.

Address the distribution of real and personal property, assets, liabilities (including debt), duties and responsibilities of both districts.

Address procedures by which the new district will employ licensed and nonlicensed staff.

There is also a plan that includes mediation for any areas in which the two districts can’t reach agreement.

Assuming agreement by the two districts, the state board would enter an order addressing the transfer of assets, territory, property, liabilities, duties or responsibilities.

The panel that recommended the interim board, chaired by state Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) chose five blacks and two whites, or — parsed another way — five men and two women, based on qualifications, he said, and not on racial, gender, geographical or other considerations.

They were selected from a pool of 50 applicants.

Board members’ collective experience includes at least two completed Ph.D.s, retired military officers, people experienced in business, marketing and education and one man who has worked extensively as a consultant to school boards, schools and teachers groups throughout the western United States.

Among that board’s many responsibilities will be carving the district up into zones from which to elect future board members, to hire a superintendent, a chief financial officer, an attorney and others to begin division of assets with the Pulaski County Special School District, from which it has now officially — but not completely — separated.

PCSSD will remain responsible for educating both groups of students until the new district is ready to stand alone.

Jacksonville attorney and former state representative Mike Wilson helped start the Lighthouse Charter Schools in Jacksonville and has also been among those pushing for the standalone Jacksonville district.

“I expect them to work together in cooperation and friendly competition,” Wilson said Thursday morning.

An example?

“Lighthouse might have a Chinese teacher, and the new district may not, and they can trade them around,” he said.

“I want to see that both Lighthouse and the new district teach those children reading, writing and arithmetic,” he said. “The hard work starts now.”

Former PCSSD board member Bishop James Bolden and Ivory Tillman, head of the Jacksonville NAACP, were the only people to address the board before the vote.

Tillman wanted to be sure the interim board would have open meetings and transparency, and he was assured that state law required that.

“We’re getting ready to shake it up in the educational realm in this state,” Bolden told the board.

Patrick Wilson, attorney for the detachment group, said his firm hadn’t been hired by the new district because it was only minutes old and hadn’t met, “but we would certainly be interested in visiting with them and hope they’ll seek to hire us,” Wilson said.

“The next step is detachment — statute requires us to approach federal court and make sure it’s aware of what we are doing, and we are ready to go forward and get some sort of blessing from the federal court,” he said.

Among others at the meeting were Guess, PCSSD attorney Alan Roberts, chief financial officer Bill Goff, Perry and PCSSD attorney Sam Jones, as well as interim JNPSC board members Ron McDaniel and Dr. Robert Price.