Friday, August 21, 2015

TOP STORY >> Judge: New district must obey orders

Leader senior staff writer

“This is not a new day,” U.S. District Judge Price Marshall said Thursday, giving the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District a slap on the wrist, saying it was still subject to desegregation Plan 2000 and to the desegregation agreement settlement that, among other things, authorized detachment of a Jacksonville-area district.

JNP attorney Scott Richardson told the court that the new detachment agreement — approved by both districts, Education Commissioner Johnny Key and the state Board of Education this month — was intended to replace much of the earlier agreement, giving the Jacksonville board the authority to operate pretty much autonomously.

Not so, Marshall said. He said Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Jerry Guess remains the final word on all desegregation-related actions contemplated by the new Jacksonville district.


“If and when collaboration fails, the decision maker is Guess,” he said, subject to review by the court. “He is the chief administrative officer (for JNP) until July of next year. (The two districts are) a single administrative unit until then.”

“There is great enthusiasm for ‘a new day,’” said Marshall, “but there was a day before yesterday and 10 years before that. The world did not begin with the decision for a new district.”

He said Richardson and JNP seemed to “second-guess, nitpick and quibble over” issues resolved in the post-creation agreement.

“The court perceives a slippage by the new district after being created and agreeing to oversight; it was coming back to the well,” Marshall said.

Speaking for the Joshua Intervenors, attorney John Walker said Joshua was not consulted or a party to the new detachment agreement between the two districts, an agreement that will involve desegregation issues such as staffing.

“In my view, PCSSD’s and Joshua’s argument is correct on staffing issues,” Marshall said.

The conflict was brought into sharper focus when, in July, at the recommendation of its new superintendent, Tony Wood, the JNP board hired Jeremy Owoh, who is black, as an assistant superintendent and Bobby E. Lester, who is white, also as an assistant superintendent.

A black woman, Janice Walker, the principal of Warren Dupree Elementary, scored two points higher than Lester in the assessment. The Jacksonville NAACP and Walker called foul.

Because the new district is not totally autonomous, Guess said bypassing Walker could hamper both districts’ efforts to achieve unitary status and refused to authorize it. Lester later withdrew his application for the job, and currently Owoh and JNP chief of staff Phyllis Stewart are “taking up some of the slack,” she said.

Lester is the son of former PCSSD Superintendent Bobby Lester, who served as interim JNP superintendent until Wood took over July 1. Wood was familiar with the younger Lester from the time they worked together for the state Education Department.

Richardson, for the JNP board, said it was its own district now and could make its own decisions — that it was a new day.

Marshall said that, for matters related to desegregation, Guess was still “the final word, captain of the ship.”

He declined to rule on the matter since it involved conflicting laws and was at the moment a moot point.

“This is a very difficult issue that has divided the courts,” Marshall said previously, commenting that he wasn’t sure the issue could be resolved.

As for signing off on the new detachment agreement, Marshall said, “I want to mull (the detachment agreement) further.” Until then, it’s the court’s order that the prior agreement holds.


Saying the districts weren’t making the progress he had hoped in achieving unitary status, Marshall ordered the Pulaski County Special School District, Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District and the Joshua Intervenors to meet monthly to work out specifics of school facilities plans and report back to him at the Dec. 16 status conference.

“I’m not sure we’re making the best use of time in these status conferences. Instead of moving down the road, it’s become an opportunity to fight.”

To help set the tone, he suggested that the host group for each meeting provide “pie and drinks.”

PCSSD’s proposed 5.6-mill property tax increase to fund an ambitious facilities building program failed at the polls May 12, meaning the district had to cut back to what Guess called “Plan B.” That plan focuses on replacing Mills High School and moving Fuller Middle School into the old Mills building.

Marshall said he wanted more details on Plan B, including a timeline.

He also wants more information on the JNP facilities plan. Walker has maintained that building and deciding on sites for new schools, for instance, made the plan a desegregation issue.

Marshall said he wants to know more about where the new district’s new schools are going to be.

Jacksonville-North Pulaski, starting from a plan developed previously by PCSSD and from a tentative facilities plan submitted to the state last February, has hired as a consultant Charles Stein. Stein, who retired as director of the state Transportation and Facilities Department June 30, was in charge of evaluating master facilities plans for participation in the state’s financial matching program.

To be eligible for matching funds for the 2017-19 period, the JNP long-range facilities plan must be submitted by Feb. 1, 2016, and the application for specific projects must be submitted by March 1.

Walker told the court that neither district had included the Joshua Intervenors in facilities discussions or planning.

That will change, assuming the districts follow the judge’s instructions.

Walker also told the court that JNP had already chosen an architect and contractor that were “not minority friendly.”

He said JNP decisions were fraught with favoritism and nepotism.

The JNP board has authorized Wood to advertise a request for qualifications for those positions, to narrow them down to three applicants for each position and to make them available to the board for the purposes of selection.

After the Thursday hearing, Stewart identified the three firms under consideration for each of the two positions.

Of the seven applications for construction manager, Wood chose Adevco with CDI of Little Rock, Baldwin and Shell of Little Rock and Doyne Nabholtz Partnership of Conway.

Of the dozen architectural firms that sent qualifications, Wood chose three Little Rock firms — Lewis Architects and Engineers, Wittenberg Delony and Davidson, Inc., and Witsell Evans Rasco Architects.