Tuesday, December 16, 2014

EDITORIAL >> District plans on schedule

It seems the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District has a few friends in Little Rock. The state Board of Education recognized the new district soon after area residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of leaving the Pulaski County Special School District.

State Education Commissioner Tony Wood also supports the hiring of former Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Bobby Lester of Jacksonville to lead the new district for the first few months of its existence, pending approval by U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall, who is overseeing the Pulaski County desegregation case. Price will hold a hearing Thursday with the Pulaski County school districts to formalize the split.

Judge Marshall understands that decades of benign neglect made the separation inevitable. He has long supported the formation of a Jacksonville-area school district and has called the county district dysfunctional and worse. In any event, PCSSD will continue to oversee the Jacksonville school district for two more years. A proposed millage increase, if passed, would help the new district get off the ground. After that, PCSSD will shrink and have to fend for itself.

The state Board of Education gave PCSSD and the new Jacksonville district 120 days after receiving the necessary court orders from Marshall to submit to the board:

 A plan for the zoning and election of school board members in September 2015.

 A determination of the millage necessary to operate the new district.

 A plan for distribution of real and personal property, assets, liabilities, including debt, duties and responsibilities.

 A specific plan addressing the procedure to employ licensed and non-licensed staff.

Lester, a native of Rose Bud in White County, has served as Jacksonville High School principal, PCSSD superintendent and even interim superintendent in 2011, when the state took over the failed district, which still remains under state supervision.

Lester said he will recommend the districts work with consultants to settle debts and millage, but that any action is premature until the court order on Thursday.

The new board will soon have to decide on a request made by Col. Stephen Weaver, 19th Mission Support Group commander, to appoint a nonvoting, ex-officio school board member to represent Little Rock Air Force Base.

Once the district gets out from under state and court supervision, it’s important that the air base has a key role in the running of the new school district. Airmen have 1,900 school-age children, with about 1,300 of them in Cabot schools and 500 in PCSSD.

The air base has offered 300 acres to the district for an educational campus, and the Defense Department could pay as much as 75 percent of the cost of replacing the decrepit Arnold Elementary School on the base and money toward turning North Pulaski High School into a junior high.

An Air Force representative on the board “would not be unique,” Weaver said at a recent Jacksonville school board meeting. “There are a number of these kinds of relationships in other communities.”

The Pentagon provides additional aid to military communities, and those funds could go higher in Jacksonville once the district becomes independent. Here’s hoping the new district passes another hurdle in court tomorrow.