Monday, February 23, 2015

TOP STORY >> Budget of $92M for new schools

Leader staff writer

Interim Jacksonville-North Pulaski Superintendent Bobby Lester received a much warmer welcome from about 40 people Thursday at Bayou Meto Elementary, where the second of two “community conversation” meetings was held.

The meetings were about the new school district’s intention to shut down Jacksonville Middle School next year and move its 190 middle school students into Northwood Middle School, which would have been vacated for low enrollment.

But Thursday’s talk turned to the planned building of a combined high school on 300 acres of Defense Department land, a new elementary school on 20 acres of Defense Department land and converting the North Pulaski High School in between the two lots into a combined middle school.

Those projects, plus renovating Adkins Pre-K, Bayou Meto, Dupree, Pinewood and Taylor elementary schools, will cost about $92 million, Lester said.

The new elementary school would replace Arnold Drive, which was built on Little Rock Air Force Base in the early 1960s, and Tolleson.

North Pulaski will become the new middle school in 2016-17, Lester said, and its students would transfer to Jacksonville High School until the combined high school becomes a reality.

Derek Scott, PCSSD director of operations, said the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment, which would provide a portion of the funding for the elementary and high school projects, is processing paperwork for both.

“It’s a funding issue right now. I am hopeful,” he said.

Scott also noted that the 300 acres is large enough for a facility like the new Maumelle High School local people have compared to the Taj Mahal or Conway’s collegiate-like high school campus with separate buildings.

And the Jacksonville district has submitted a skeleton master facilities plan to the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, in order to qualify for matching funds of about 50 percent for all approved academic instructional spaces beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

Lester has said the new district doesn’t know yet how much of a millage increase might be needed to fund new facilities.

A millage increase for Jacksonville-North Pulaski patrons will not be voted on this September, and the 5.6-mill increase sought by the Pulaski County Special School District won’t affect them.

When the millage question came up, a woman raising her granddaughter — a junior attending Jacksonville schools — voiced her concern over being told her ballot wasn’t counted in the last school election when the detachment was approved by 95 percent of voters.

Darlene Dickman said she lives in Faulkner County but is zoned for PCSSD and pays taxes that will go to the new district when it separates completely.

Daniel Gray, the Jacksonville school board president, suggested she work that issue out with the Faulkner County Election Commission.

One man at the meeting pointed out that much needs to be done at North Pulaski for it to become a middle school. There are missing tiles, a “deplorable” cafeteria and classrooms that have to be walked through to get to other classrooms while classes are in session, he said.

Another attendee, Kathy Caswell, was also curious about what work would be done at North Pulaski. Then she mentioned, and many agreed, that the rivalry between JHS and NPHS students would be challenging when both sets of students attend classes together at JHS temporarily and for the first few years at a new combined high school.

Scott noted that NPHS has a new auditorium, new parking lots and a new bus lane. Carpet and tiles have been replaced, but half of the school needs those kinds of things done, he said.

Scott said improving North Pulaski would continue but admitted that the district “under invested” in facilities for 20 years. PCSSD spent one-sixth of what it should have on buildings, the director explained.

Things changed after the state took over the fiscally-distressed PCSSD in 2011, he said.

The school board was dissolved, and Jerry Guess was appointed superintendent then.

The first year after the takeover, $8 million was spent on roofs and renovating the front of JHS because the steps there were dangerous, Scott said.

He explained that crews have focused on improving and fixing common areas throughout the PCSSD’s 40 buildings, which include 36 schools.

But workers have only seen about 4 percent of the district’s classrooms, Scott said.

“There’s still a lot of things to be done, and it’s going to take a period of time,” he emphasized.

Lester said Scott had been doing a good job. But, he added, “It’s hard to put lipstick on a sow and make her look a whole lot better when she’s been wallowing in the mud as long as she has been.”

Another woman at the meeting was concerned about the new district not having enough middle school students to fill North Pulaski, but she was told the Jacksonville-North Pulaski district has between 800 and 900 middle school students.

Scott was asked why PCSSD made improvements to Northwood when they were planning to close it. He said the closure would not have been permanent and the building would have been used within the next five years to alleviate crowding at other campuses.

Lester explained at the beginning of the meeting why moving kids from JMS, which was built in 1952, to Northwood, which was built in 1979, would help.

“I think our students, if we can put them in some nice facilities that are warm, safe and dry, they’re motivated to get a good education,” he said.

The plan still needs approval from the interim Jacksonville school board, but Lester expressed confidence that its members are supportive of the proposal.

About JMS, he said, “It’s a whole lot worse than what I even remembered” with students putting their coats on to travel between classes or in the cold bathrooms, walking through mud to the gym and being taught science in “dressing rooms.”

Lester added, “Our kids deserve more.”

PCSSD’s original plans called for Northwood’s 300 students to attend Sylvan Hills Middle School in Sherwood and left Northwood vacant for at least a year.

That school has a controlled climate with classrooms that aren’t outside, community-based instruction courses JMS didn’t offer and plenty of room for JMS students, Lester noted. He added that one of the drawbacks is some students living east of JMS would be an extra 20 minutes riding the bus.

But, Lester pointed out, the 20 minutes is worth the seven hours of being warm in classes at Northwood.