Friday, June 05, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Teachers face layoffs

The Arkansas Department of Education approved a plan to lay off all the teachers in Jacksonville next year as the city completes its separation from the Pulaski County Special School District and the new Jacksonville district.

Supporters of the plan — the interim school board and superintendents Bobby Lester and Jerry Guess — say it will bring the new district’s spending under control by cutting teachers’ salaries and benefits. Critics — mostly teachers who have worked in Jacksonville schools for years — say it will lead to hiring new teachers who are inexperienced and can’t help their students learn as well. New teachers do leave the profession at higher rates than their more experienced peers.

While firing might be too strong a term to describe what the teachers are facing, they are definitely not guaranteed their positions after the next school year. They can reapply for jobs with the new Jacksonville district, with PCSSD or with other districts in the area, but most will not be rehired and few will have their old salary.

The new Jacksonville district will consolidate schools and not as many teachers will be needed. That means, by the 2016-17 year, students in Jacksonville won’t recognize many of the staff members.

It is a gamble. The new district certainly needs some flexibility in dealing with staff, not only to bolster its finances but also to improve academically. We hope it works.

Residents in the new district will vote on a permanent school board in September. Although they won’t vote then on a property tax increase to help build schools, that is needed.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase sought by PCSSD, probably because they don’t trust the money will be used to educate children. But Jacksonville and north Pulaski County residents should support a local tax and know that the money will be spent wisely to build schools and improve the quality of education.

The days of siphoning money from Jacksonville and sending it elsewhere are over.

North Pulaski High School will become a middle school by 2016-17, and it will be merged with Jacksonville High School. The district hopes to build a new high school near the air base on General Samuels Road.

What will become of the old Jacksonville High School, the old Northside-Southside campus, the already-abandoned Jacksonville Elementary School and other schools that will likely be closed?

The city government will have to figure out how to pay for demolition of the old campuses. Jacksonville Elementary has been vacant four years. The city doesn’t have the money to demolish it, and the prospects of opening a business there are dim. It would make a nice park though.

Some hope several big-name businesses will open where the middle school campuses are, once Hwy. 67/167 work is complete.

The new district can build some new schools on the sites of old campuses, but many could be abandoned for years, which will only underscore the city’s urban blight crisis.

It is time that Jacksonville officials and the school board start a conversation about what the city will look like with its own school system and explore ways in which abandoned campuses will be demolished or transformed.

Blaming PCSSD for Jacksonville’s shortcomings won’t help us now. We need smart planning from the school board as well as from city hall.

It’s up to the community to pull together and work twice as hard.