Monday, January 12, 2015

EDITORIAL >> New schools won't be easy

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District needs a large or even staggering amount of money to build its way out of one of the worst school building situations in one of the poorest states in the country.

The schools that interim Superintendent Bobby Lester will consider when applying for state partnership funds are Homer Adkins pre-K, Bayou Meto, Murell Taylor, Pinewood, Tolleson, Arnold Drive, Warren Dupree elementary schools, Jacksonville Middle, Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School.

Current, unofficial plans call for building a new high school on 300 acres on Little Rock Air Force Base land, converting the North Pulaski High School into the district’s middle school, building a new elementary school on the base to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools and to remodel and add on to Murell Taylor, Bayou Meta, Pinewood and Warren Dupree elementary schools.

The Defense Department has said it would help with some funding for the high school and the elementary school that would be constructed on its base.

One of Lester’s first chores when he starts work Monday will be to compile a school facilities plan for the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation. To be eligible for state facilities matching funds for the 2017-19 biennium, Lester must file a skeletal plan by Feb. 1.

The informed but estimated building needs of the schools that will belong to the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District when it opens its doors—probably in the 2016-17 school year—range from $88 million to $93 million to do it right.

The $88 million estimate comes from the most recent detachment feasibility study, prepared by Winston F. Simpson in his 2013 report.

“Please be mindful that most of the data on which my study is based was gathered in the fall of 2012,” Simpson told us. “Numbers will change as time passes. However, the conclusion of the study (that the Jacksonville area can financially support a competitive school district) stands. Further, the facilities options included in the study are based on the data available to me from PCSSD and the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.”

The $93 million estimate was from the PCSSD’s 2013-15 update to its 10-year facilities plan, on file with the division.

Lester, who starts fulltime Monday, will help determine the extent of that need with Simpson serving as a consultant.

When you are headed into a swamp, it’s good to have experienced guides, and that’s just what we have with Simpson, Lester, his chief of staff Phyllis Steward and Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Jerry Guess.

The known unknowns, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have said, include”

1. How much money do we need?

2. Will the General Assembly continue to fund state matching money for building schools? If so, what would be Jacksonville’s share? It has been variously estimated that the state would pay between 50 percent and 64 percent of new school construction.

3. The desegregation agreement calls for PCSSD to get the final year of $20.8 million desegregation funds for building or upgrading facilities. Will Guess be able to use it to carry out his building plans, or will the new district get approximately $5 million of that as a proportionate share of the settlement, for their facilities?”

4. It seems likely that a property tax increase will be required of JNP district patrons to attack the problem in a timely manner, but how much of an increase, and will it pass?
Jacksonville-area residents have taxed themselves at every turn when it comes to education and their children, and we suspect they would do so again if they understand how the money will be used.