Tuesday, December 02, 2014

TOP STORY >> Lester to put his stamp on new district

Leader senior staff writer

“I’m ready to put my shoulder to the plow and do the best I can,” interim Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District Superintendent Bobby Lester said Tuesday.

Monday night, at its second meeting, the new Jacksonville board chose Lester to lead the district through the first few months of its two-year transition to independence, pending his actual hiring by state Education Commissioner Tony Wood and approval of the district’s actions by U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall.

School board president Daniel Gray said Lester, 69, long active in efforts to detach a Jacksonville-area district from the Pulaski County Special School District, was the only candidate considered for the position during a 44-minute executive session.

Lester served as interim superintendent in 2011 when the state declared the Pulaski County Special School District in fiscal distress and took over, dissolving the board and firing then-superintendent Charles Hopson.

“I can go in there and work with (PCSSD Superintendent Jerry) Guess,” said Lester, who was serving as PCSSD interim superintendent when Guess was hired in 2011.

“I want to get through the initial steps,” he said. “In 120 days, a lot of things need to be accomplished.

“People stopped me in Walmart and asked me to do this,” he said.

“I’ve probably lost my mind,” he said Monday. “My head says I shouldn’t, but my heart says I have to.”


“It is gratifying,” he said. “I appreciate the support I’ve always had from mayor (Fletcher and previously, Tommy Swaim) on down. I’ve got a long history here — as principal, Jacksonville High School had a lot of problems. We turned that school around.”

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

He is a consultant for McPherson & Jacobson, a national executive recruitment and development group that specializes in superintendent searches and salary studies.

Calling it “an arduous task,” he said it would be “hard to find someone else in Arkansas that’s been through these things. I’m here to serve anyway I can.”

He said, when the board finally hires a superintendent to actually run the school district, “It’ll take me a few days to get out the door. I don’t want to serve beyond June 30. Hope I can live up to your expectations.”


The interim board will launch a nationwide search this spring to find a superintendent to run the fledgling district, but the board wasted little time in choosing the hometown favorite until then.

Lester, who was Pulaski County Special School District superintendent during “its glory days,” in the words of Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, can’t officially take that position until Judge Marshall approves the board’s choice at a Dec. 18 status conference.

In its order establishing the new district, the state Board of Education gave PCSSD and the new Jacksonville district 120 days after receiving the necessary court orders from Marshall to submit:

 A plan to select and hire a superintendent.

 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 and liabilities including debt, duties and responsibilities.

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

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, which could be issued as soon as Dec. 18.

The hiring of an assistant “will be my call,” Lester said. “I have some ideas but don’t know who’s available. I can’t do it by myself. Dr. Guess is still in charge,” he added.


In other action, the board deferred action on a request by Col. Stephen Weaver, commander of the 19th Mission Support Group, to appoint a non-voting, ex-officio school board member to represent Little Rock Air Force Base.

Gray tabled the request, saying the board’s authority is not yet fully vested, pending further action by the court.


The board asked Guess to ask Metroplan to recommend some five- and seven-zone configurations for board representation.

Metroplan has helped PCSSD in the past when census changes have required redrawing the zones, Guess said.

The board said it would start a website for the new Jacksonville district to keep patrons informed and involved and also said it would make time for public comments at board meetings.


“The base is very excited,” Weaver said. He said the base was confident that, under local control, the students will have the best opportunity for a good education.

“We estimate we’ll have 500 kids in the district, with more in the future,” he said. He further estimated that airmen have 1,900 school-age children, with about 1,300 of them currently in Cabot schools.

Weaver said the 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 repurposing North Pulaski High School into a junior high.

A base representative on the board “would not be unique. There are a number of these kinds of relationships in other communities,” Weaver said.

Before the meeting, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce hosted a welcome gathering of about 50 people at its office, where the new board was introduced to an enthusiastic reception.