Tuesday, April 07, 2015

TOP STORY >> Insider tops school chief search

Leader senior staff writer

The first superintendent of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District is likely to be either former state Education Commissioner James Tony Wood or Little Rock School Deputy Superintendent Marvin Burton, although a search firm says Wood is the most qualified.

At Monday night’s interim JNP School Board meeting, board members selected the two from a list of a dozen applicants compiled by the McPherson and Jacob search firm.

Wood, 64, will interview with the board Monday, and Burton, 50, next Wednesday, and the new superintendent could be chosen at a special school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16 at Jacksonville City Hall, according to JNP chief of staff Phyllis Stewart.

The interviews are not open to the public.

McPherson’s superintendent search leader, former Beebe Superintendent Kieth Williams, told the board, there’s James Tony Wood and then there’s everyone else.

He said the board had given him the most demanding set of search criteria he had seen, and “the only one who meets your criteria is James Tony Wood.”

Interim Superintendent Bobby Lester, who has worked as a consultant for McPherson, said he was not disappointed, but surprised by the dearth of qualified applicants.

He said many were discouraged by the criteria, which included experience with bond issues, construction, division of assets — and “the biggest issue was the uncertainty on whether we can exist.”

Timing this time around is everything.

The two superintendent candidates both became available days ago — Wood when he was replaced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s nominee Johnny Key as state education commissioner, Burton when he was let go last week, part of the Little Rock District’s reduction in force. Wood is currently deputy education commissioner. Serendipity didn’t end here, however.


The board was able to hire Scott Richardson to deal with the federal desegregation case still before District Judge Price Marshall.

Richardson, chief deputy for then-Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, represented the state for several years in the sprawling desegregation case.

Patrick Wilson remains JNP council for other matters.

Richardson is available because McDaniel didn’t run for re-election and Republican Leslie Rutledge was elected attorney general.

He has already started representing the new district, and bills $250 an hour, Stewart said.

He is a partner in the new firm of McDaniel, Richardson and Calhoun, which includes the former attorney general.


In another case of good timing, the board was able to hire Charles Stein, who will begin after his retirement this summer from his job as director of the state Education Department’s Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Division, Stewart said.

For about five years, he’s been the head of the state’s masters facility-planning program.

For overseeing the district’s master facility-plan application, Stein will be paid probably between $20,000 and $22,500, depending on the number of students in the district.

“He’ll complete and submit all academic partnership facilities plan applications,” Stewart said.


And when the district is ready to start building, he’ll provide program and project management and oversight of district projects, she said.

Like Richardson, Stein will be a contractor, not an employee, so the district won’t be responsible for fringe benefits.

He worked 34 years for the Little Rock Army Corps of Engineers. He’s a registered professional engineer and a certified education facilities planner.

The timing on the availability of Richardson, Stein, Wood and Burton was perfect. To the suggestion that the stars had aligned perfectly, JNP Board president Daniel Gray responded, “Yes. We just had to wait 30 years for the stars to line up. We’ve got to be diligent. There’s a lot of work to be done.”


“We’re in a situation where we have to have the best brains in the world to pull this off,” Lester said. “Expertise and hard work.”

The board has set a salary range of $145,000 to $160,000 for the superintendent, depending on the range of experience and qualification.

As state Education Commissioner, Wood has acted as a one-man school board for the Pulaski County Special School District and, under its wing, the fledgling JNP School District. That’s because the state took over PCSSD in 2011, dissolving the school board and replacing it with the education commissioner. He is thus well versed with specific difficulties and demands of standing up the new district.

Jacksonville is slated to have its own district starting with the 2016-17 school year.

While PCSSD and JNP are still joined at the hip, PCSSD is a party to the desegregation agreement, Plan 2000.

JNP is not currently a party, but when PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess filed a status report to Marshall last week, JNP felt suddenly exposed, according to Gray. Guess figured the entire $20.8 million final state desegregation payment toward PCSSD’s facilities program.


Gray and other Jacksonville-North Pulaski stakeholders think the new district should get a proportionate share of that payment, roughly $5 million.

That’s why they decided they needed to get their own attorney in the mix and hired Richardson, who participated in crafting that financial settlement to get the state out of desegregation payments.

“His experience with the case in the attorney general’s office — he knows the intricate details,” Gray said.

In other business, Robin Wakefield of the Jacksonville NAACP spoke to express support for the district, but worried that there might have been some concern over her remarks at an earlier meeting.

“We’re here to help any way we can,” she said.


Mike Kish, a PCSSD substitute teacher, spoke to encourage the board to hire and assign a teacher to testing duties and free up counselors to counsel.

Lester announced the Superintendent’s Advisory Board he had appointed.

Members are: Board Zone 1 — David Ramos; Zone 2 — Merlene McGhee; Zone 3 — Latasha Gregory; Zone 4 — Ivory Tillman; Zone 5 — Miranda Nicholson, and at large members are Mayor Gary Fletcher, Holly Roderick, Pat Griggs, Roger Sundermeier, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, and Col. Stephen Weaver of Little Rock Air Force Base.