Monday, January 12, 2015

TOP STORY >> Resolving issues key for launch of district

Leader senior staff writer

The clock has started on a 120-day deadline for the Jacksonville-North Pulaski and Pulaski County Special School Districts to work out division of assets and liabilities and other issues after the state Board of Education on Thursday approved the operating agreement sanctioned last month by U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall.

When the state took over the fiscally distressed county district, the state board dissolved the elected PCSSD school board, fired Superintendent Charles Hopson and then-Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell hired Guess.

The hiring of former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester as interim Jacksonville superintendent became formal with the board’s approval of a working agreement between the two districts. The agreement leaves PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess in the driver’s seat for as long as another 18 months or until the new district is ready to stand alone.

Lester said he and Chief of Staff Phyllis Stewart have been working for free so far, but they will be on the clock starting Monday. Lester said his annual salary was $150,000.

Guess told the board the appointed community advisory board that performs some functions of a school board was a good training ground for the next generation of PCSSD board members, who could be elected next September.

Daniel Gray, president of the newly appointed Jacksonville-North Pulaski interim school board, and vice president Ron McDaniel also sit as Jacksonville-area representatives on the PCSSD advisory board.

Guess said he hoped that serving on both boards would fast-track development of local leaders for the new district.

“I think they have gained vast insight,” he said.

Accounting for the loss of revenue from detachment of the Jacksonville School District from PCSSD and for the loss of $20.8 million a year in state desegregation funds is all that prevents PCSSD from emerging from its fiscal distress designation and state control.
Both districts are exposed to great risk financially, Guess said.

Guess said, “This detachment exposes both districts to significant challenges” after the loss of $35 million.

State Board president Sam Ledbetter said — of Guess, Joshua Intervenor Attorney John Walker, Lester, Goff, Gray and others from Jacksonville — “a lot of good minds are working on it, and we’re pulling for you.”

In a separate but related issue, Lester said Friday that Patrick Wilson, chosen to be the attorney for the new district, would also be its employee starting on Monday. He had been the Jacksonville-north Pulaski Education Corps’ attorney.

Accounting for the loss of revenue from detachment of the Jacksonville PCSSD chief financial officer Bill Goff told the board that the district had corrected 37 of the 38 problems for which it was cited, placed in fiscal distress and taken over by the state in 2011.

He said the district would petition by the April board meeting the Education Department and the board for release from the designation and the state oversight.

Education Commissioner Tony Wood, who is also the de facto, one-man PCSSD school board, said, “The only outstanding unresolved issue is how they are going to deal with the loss of revenue from the phaseout of desegregation revenues.

They will present a detailed plan this month. Once they have submitted that, there will be consideration of an appropriate time to turn over control.”

Goff said, “We are working on a five-year impact (forecast) of Jacksonville detachment and of loss of about $20.8 million a year in state desegregation funds. The projection is that we can meet that loss in reasonable ways and still maintain fiscal integrity.

“We have to make a lot of hard decisions over the next 18 months,” Goff said. “We can put a plan together that looks good on paper, but dealing with paper and dealing with people are two different things.

“Wood expects (our plan) by April. They have to decide whether to release us from fiscal distress. If we’ve met our plan, there’s no choice but to release us from fiscal distress.”

State board member Jay Barth asked Goff if the district had met its legal fund balance. Goff answered, “Yes, for the last two years.”

Wood said, “This is a matter with clear guidance in law, the process of being in fiscal distress and coming out. We’re trying to be attentive to that.”

The 11-point agreement approved by the state board without discussion and in less than a minute Thursday was worked out by Guess, Lester, Wilson and PCSSD attorney Allen Roberts. Among those points were:

• PCSSD administrators shall operate the Jacksonville district during the transition.

• The PCSSD superintendent will be CEO of the district, reporting to the commissioner in lieu of a school board.

• PCSSD continues its obligations as a non-unitary desegregation defendant.

• Both districts will be considered a single unit for purposes of desegregation status.

• The commissioner shall select a superintendent and other employees for  the Jacksonville district and confirm Wilson as attorney, paid by PCSSD.

• Employees assigned to Jacksonville-area duties continue as PCSSD employees until the new district is fully operational.

• During the remainder of 2014-15, the Jacksonville superintendent designate will be an integral participant in all personnel decisions related to the new district.

• The goal of the PCSSD administration will be a turnkey job in which the new district and its board will be vested with all powers and responsibilities.

• Parties continue to negotiate in good faith to resolve issues such as division of assets and debt, student assignment, teacher salary schedule and configuration of board zones prior to the September 2015 school elections.