Tuesday, July 07, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Tony Wood gets to work

As superintendent of the newly formed Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School District, Tony Wood has taken on the biggest challenge of his career. He took over for Bobby Lester last week, having previously been Searcy’s superintendent and education commissioner under former Gov. Mike Beebe.

Wood will oversee the largest urban-renewal effort the city has ever attempted. Residents hope that new schools will lead to an economic recovery by attracting young families who have chosen Cabot and Sherwood in recent years.

For decades, the Pulaski County Special School District neglected the city’s schools, and it could take a long time to transform them into high-functioning academic institutions.

Wood knows it will take several years to rebuild the city’s school system. His leadership will be tested early on when he will be tasked with convincing residents to raise their property taxes to pay for new schools while many teacher salaries and benefits are drastically cut.

Many of the schools will be demolished, but, more likely, several campuses will be shuttered and consolidated, which could make many parts of town look vacant and unappealing.

The city needs a new high school, middle school and a few elementary schools. Plans are already in place to make North Pulaski High School a new middle school and consolidate North Pulaski and Jacksonville high schools. The district will save millions of dollars by shutting down many of its campuses, but funds will be needed to build new schools, including a new high school and new elementary schools.

The downside would be leaving several neighborhoods with vacant school buildings that sit idle for years. The advantage would be to sell those properties to help pay for new schools, especially if supplemented by a millage increase. It would also free up prime locations to build new homes and businesses.

The old Jacksonville Middle School land near Hwy. 67/167 is often mentioned as a good location for a shopping center. But what about all the other sites?

District officials should hire urban-development planners to determine where schools should be built. They should also explore ways to build new schools and rehabilitate old ones with financing from the county’s PACE program that allows nonresidential property owners to update electrical systems and remodel in energy-efficient ways with low-cost loans that are repaid through their property-tax bills.

Jacksonville city officials should lobby County Judge Barry Hyde to expand PACE to homeowners. Realtors could also remodel aging properties with modern amenities. Families will be enticed to move to town. Think of the jobs that could be created.

As The Leader’s John Hofheimer noted in a recent article, Scientific American named PACE one of its top 20 “world-changing ideas.”

Wood’s work will determine the future of Jacksonville. He and the school board must spell out their vision of what is needed. They’ll probably be tight-lipped about details until after the September school-board elections, but that will be a mistake in the long run. Let’s get those details before the school board elections.