Thursday, July 02, 2015

TOP STORY >> New chief for district

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville-North Pulaski Superintendent Tony Wood took the wheel from interim Superintendent Bobby Lester on Wednesday morning, although for the moment Lester continues to help navigate.

After lunch, Wood, Lester and attorney Scott Richardson met to discuss some of issues left to be resolved with the Pulaski County Special School District before the new district is completely on its own one year from now.

“We’ve still got five things to settle,” said Lester, including bonded debt and selling facilities to the new district. He said fine-tuning and clearing up some ambiguous language were also among them.

Any areas of disagreement would go first to state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, and, if disagreement continues, to a magistrate.

A proposed salary schedule that starts first-year teachers at $38,000 and tops out at $55,500 is slated for consideration at the JNP board meeting at 6:30 Tuesday night in the Jacksonville City Hall Council Chambers.

The board usually meets on the first Monday night of the month, but, to accommodate the July 4th holiday, it was moved to Tuesday.

By way of comparison, at PCSSD this year, beginning teachers will earn $34,106 – a $2,000 increase — while a Ph.D. with 17 years will earn $69,206.

“The board will take a look at it Tuesday night,” Lester said. “I think they’ll approve the salary schedule for all personnel plus the appropriate stipends” for those with coaching or other additional duties.

Tuesday’s will be the first board meeting under Wood’s leadership. He was state Education Commissioner until January, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed Johnny Key to that post.

“The challenge is to put forth our best effort to provide the educational setting for the children of Jacksonville that they deserve,” Wood said Wednesday.

“The first item of business is to bring closure to the specific items of the separation,” he said. “We are beginning a new school district and everything allows it to function in an organized and structured way.

“One of our challenges to try to work toward being able to provide information (to current staff) regarding future employment,” he said.

“This community has been and continues to be so supportive of the educational process for the young people of Jacksonville. It’s a comforting feeling to know the community is united 95 percent.”

He said he would encourage the new board to ask voters for a property-tax increase tied to the construction of the new high school complex proposed for acreage the Little Rock Air Force Base owns.

“Tuesday night, we’ll discuss their interest in submitting a request for qualifications for architectural and construction management firms” regarding a new high school, he said.

The district has hired administrators for vacancies, including: Mike Hudgeons, principal of Jacksonville Middle School, Jacob Smith from Bald Knob and assistant principal Terrod Hatcher for North Pulaski High School; Angela Stewart as principal at Arnold Drive and Dr. Taniesa Moore as principal at Tolleson, according to JNP chief of staff Phyllis Stewart.

Hudgeons, most recently a consultant, is a former principal of Benton Junior High and principal of Paris High School.

Hatcher graduated from Jacksonville High School and taught math in Bald Knob.

Stewart was principal at Bryant Middle School and Moore was assistant principal at Jacksonville Middle School.

“We recruited them into positions to be interviewed,” Lester said.

Then the actual hiring was through PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess, with Key — the one-man, acting school board — approving.

Lester said all administrators, teachers and others would have to reapply next year, because they are currently PCSSD employees through the end of the 2015-16 school year.

While activists have sought their own standalone Jacksonville-area school district for decades, over the past few years Lester has been the wizard behind the curtain.

His knowledge, contacts and Rolodex have helped bring the new district about.

Beginning this coming school year, all Jacksonville-area public middle school students will attend Jacksonville Middle School in the old Northwood Middle School building.

The bands and football teams from North Pulaski High School and Jacksonville High School will combine this year and, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, all will attend Jacksonville High School, freeing up North Pulaski for use as the district middle school, Lester said.

“We’ve met with band parents and boosters from both schools to elect new officers for the new high school, with representation from Jacksonville Middle School,” he said.

Students, parents and alumni are likely to have a hand in choosing school colors and a mascot for the combined high school and middle school.

Lester said the new district is expected to have between 4,100 and 4,500 students. “We’ve never gotten a real solid number,” he said. “We figured the budget and allocations for 4,100.”

Lester said he expected enrollment would climb as the new district has succeeded for a while. With a new high school and elementary school expected to be built on base land, he said, airmen will become more likely to live on base or in the Jacksonville area. Their children will go to Jacksonville-North Pulaski schools instead of to Cabot and elsewhere.

With 240 acres just off the base and a brand new high school facility, parents will be more likely to keep their kids in Jacksonville.

“We’re working on a no-cost or low-cost lease,” of that acreage, Lester said.

An additional 26 acres will be available for a school to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools, he said, with the Defense Department apparently prepared to chip in $18 million toward the new elementary.

Lester said the new elementary school could probably be built for about $25 million.

“The biggest challenge for Mr. Wood will be getting a complete handle on all of it,” Lester said, “income from the school district plus the human resources issue of getting all those people in place.

“He’s got the experience and the qualifications to get it done.”

As far as resolving the issues with PCSSD, Lester said, “Wood and the district’s lawyers would probably go through a settlement line by line and probably sit Key down in a room with them. That’s what I’d do.

“I’m going to be a volunteer,” said Lester, “on call. I’ve been volunteering for the past 15 years. I don’t think it will be as much as in the past.

“I’d like to express appreciation to this school board,” he said. “They are fine people with nothing but the kids in mind. There was nothing I proposed that I didn’t get a unanimous vote.”

He also praised Stewart, who is expected to continue as chief of staff. “Phyllis has been critical with her knowledge and background and stuff that’s happened in the past 15 or 16 years.”

She was the PCSSD superintendent’s administrative assistant for several years, and then worked for the state Association of School Boards and for Tom Kimbrell and Wood during their tenures as state Education Commissioner. “It’s been a pleasure to have her here.”

“It’s been an honor to be trusted by the people of Jacksonville,” he said. I’ve enjoyed it, but at times it’s been stressful. I’ll look back on it with a smile.”

Lester said that, in addition to keeping an eye on the new district, he would spend his found-again retirement attending ball games and events that his grandchildren participate in.

His 17-year-old grandson is an all-state pitcher/first baseman. He has two granddaughters who play catcher and a grandson who swims and plays soccer.

“I haven’t made up my mind whether I’ll continue doing superintendent searches,” Lester added.