Friday, May 15, 2015

TOP STORY >> Lester: Millage needed

Leader executive editor

Jacksonville’s new school district will need a millage increase to help pay for new facilities and improve the schools academically.

That was the message Bobby Lester, the interim superintendent of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, brought to the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council luncheon on Tuesday.

He said a poll of local residents shows 85 percent support for a millage increase. He pointed out that 95 percent of the voters last fall supported forming the independent school district.

In partnership with Little Rock Air Force Base, which has offered to give land to the new district for a new elementary school and a high school, Lester said the Jacksonville district would be one of the best in the state.

Lester, who is stepping down June 30, introduced Tony Wood, his successor who takes over July 1. Wood is a former Searcy superintendent and state education commissioner.

“Tony Wood in Searcy made the district one of the best,” Lester said. “He’ll get the job done for us. The next few years won’t be easy for us.”

But Lester added, “He’ll put the district at the top.”

“We need a millage in-crease that’s more comparable to other districts so parents and military families are proud to send their kids to our schools,” Lester said.

PCSSD’s current millage rate is 40.7. PCSSD voters on Tuesday rejected a 5.6 millage increase to raise $220 million, which would have paid for new facilities and schools in the district.

The Little Rock millage rate is at 46.4, Lonoke at 43.4 and North Little Rock at 40.9.

Cabot’s is at 39 mills. Beebe’s is at 36.6 and Searcy at 35.7.

The average millage rate in the state is 37.2.

Lester, a former Pulaski County Special School Superintendent, said the extra superintendent, said the extra funds would build several new schools with significant funding from the Defense Department.

“We need to get out of court to build better facilities,” Lester said. “Our kids deserve the best.”

“We’re not a rich district,” he told the community council. “We don’t have a lot of assets.”

He said Wood will soon hire two assistant superintendents and principals will be announced in the fall.

“Most will be rehired,” Lester said.

He also said the district will rehire most of the teachers in Jacksonville, but they could be paid less.

“There will be a new pay schedule,” Lester predicted. “We can’t afford Pulaski County’s pay schedule. They couldn’t afford it either. That’s why they’re in fiscal distress.”

Lester said his visit to Jacksonville Middle School was “demoralizing.”

“I was appalled at conditions at Jacksonville Middle School,” the interim superintendent said. “There are a lot more horror stories I could tell you.”

He said no students should learn in that environment or teachers work in a rundown school.

The school will close this fall and middle school students will go to Northwood Middle School for a year before North Pulaski High School is turned into a middle school. North Pulaski students will go to Jacksonville High School.

The Air Force has offered a long-term lease at no cost to the district to build a new elementary school near the base perimeter on Harris Road across from North Pulaski High School.

The nearby Tolleson Elementary would be combined with Arnold Drive Elementary School at the 27-acre site.

A new high school would be built farther up the road near Paradise Lake.

In addition, a millage increase and matching funds from the state and the military would pay for renovating Jacksonville’s dilapidated elementary schools, Lester said.