Tuesday, December 23, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Millage rate is set locally

The Pulaski County School District is seeking a 5.6-mill property tax increase in September, but Jacksonville residents will not even vote on that request. Instead, voters in the newly formed Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District will keep the current 40.6 mills or decide to raise their millage possibly as soon as this fall when they will elect a new school board to replace an interim board appointed by the state.

After decades of benign neglect as a stepchild of the Pulaski County Special School District, the Jacksonville area won’t have to support schools in Little Rock and elsewhere with hard-earned tax dollars. Jacksonville is formalizing its own school district after an overwhelming endorsement last month by local voters.

Until last week, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall wasn’t sure if Jacksonville voters would be included in the county millage election. PCSSD attorney Allen Roberts told the judge during a hearing Thursday that the Jacksonville district is to have the same tax rate as PCSSD at the time of detachment.

Although Jacksonville is organizing its own district, it isn’t operating the schools yet. The state Board of Education formed the new district on Nov. 13 at the current PCSSD millage rate, which stays in place regardless what county voters outside the Jacksonville area decide next fall.

If Marshall wasn’t sure before the hearing about the details on who would vote on the millage increase, neither were we. There was the possibility that Jacksonville might be included in the PCSSD millage vote as long as the city wasn’t completely separated from the county district.

PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess will continue to supervise both districts for at least 18 more months, so the judge might have wanted Jacksonville included in the county vote, but why prolong the agony? Jacksonville and PCSSD officials didn’t think that was right, and the judge agreed. Jacksonville organizers, although reluctant to talk about a millage increase, seemed relieved that Marshall let the districts decide that issue.

He has plenty on his plate: The judge compared Jacksonville to a teenager who is still learning to drive before he becomes independent — although most residents here would think of themselves as adults who can make their own decisions.

Remember: For there to be a property-tax increase to fund new Jacksonville-area schools, the increase would have to be on the ballot for the JNPSD school elections in September or at a later date. Interim Jacksonville Superintendent Bobby Lester should ease the transition toward complete independence and help set the millage rate while he serves in his new post until next summer or so.

Although Jacksonville will almost certainly have to raise its millage for a new high school and school renovations, local voters are more likely to go along with an increase if they are convinced there would be improvements and their tax dollars would go to local schools.

Judge Marshall said he would rule soon on PCSSD’s $200 million plan to build new schools to replace Mills and Robinson high schools, to renovate those existing high schools into junior high schools and to modernize and expand Sylvan Hills High School. Sherwood is staying in PCSSD, but it, too, is making plans to leave the district.

With agreement by the Joshua Intervenors, Marshall declared PCSSD in compliance with special education requirements. He commended PCSSD and the Joshua Intervenors for working well together on the desegregation front, and PCSSD and the Jacksonville district for their cooperation in moving forward on detachment.

This court case has taken too long. More than 30 years ago, Pat Bond and others organized the first effort to leave PCSSD. More than a decade ago, then-Rep. Bond introduced a bill in the House of Representatives which allowed Jacksonville to form its own district. Several buildings in Jacksonville could easily be renovated for new district headquarters, perhaps at PCSSD’s expense and named in her honor.