Tuesday, November 03, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Good choice for school site

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School board on Monday went along with Mayor Gary Fletcher’s proposal to build a new high school on the site of the old middle schools near Hwy. 67/167, which the mayor endorsed Saturday in The Leader. The board also authorized a 7.6-mill property tax increase to help pay for the new district’s building program, calling for a Feb. 9 special election on that increase, approved the proposed long-range facilities plan and will apply for state financial help through the facilities building partnership program.

The increase would raise the millage to 48.3, about like North Little Rock’s millage, and would raise about $45 million with a 25-year payoff, according to Superintendent Tony Wood. It would cost property owners an additional $152 a year on a $100,000 home.

We appreciate the mayor following our series on reviving downtown Jacksonville and pushing for the new high school on the decrepit old middle school site. It will make a good first impression when motorists drive up on the newly widened Hwy. 67/167.

After attending a three-day workshop in Fayetteville on reviving the state’s languishing downtown, Fletcher told our reporter Rick Kron last weekend that bulldozing the Middle School South and Middle School North Junior High schools and building a new high school there would help energize the new district and also revive the city’s fortunes.

Fletcher said the meeting in Fayetteville included planners from eight areas across the country, and they all said the middle school spot would be the prime area for the new high school. The mayor sees the new high school as “a shining light on the hillside” and “the crown jewel” in his efforts to revive downtown.

School board member Ron McDaniel was among the first to propose the middle school site for a new high school, but the mayor at first didn’t like the idea and supported building the new school near the air base, which had planned to donate land for a new high school and elementary school. It appears now that only the elementary school will be built near the periphery of the base, provided voters approve the millage increase.

“I owe school board member Ron McDaniel an apology,” the mayor told The Leader. Fletcher had first scoffed at him, but Fletcher now says, “I was wrong.”

The high school should only be the district’s and city’s start at bringing Jacksonville up to its full potential.

Next should come a new elementary school on the site of the old Jacksonville Elementary School, and call it that, the Jacksonville Elementary. A new school on that site would serve as the other anchor to downtown and would bring Sunnyside physically and mentally back into the city.

That side of Jacksonville got shortchanged with the overpass to nowhere and the closing of the elementary school. In the process of building a top-notch district, let’s also reconnect those fragmented portions of Jacksonville.

There is other good news that comes from the meeting. Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Owoh is working toward bringing advanced enrichment programs to the district. Many parents have been concerned because their children will have to leave such magnet programs they’ve attended in the Pulaski County Special School District.

The new district won’t be able to replicate those PCSSD magnet programs, but it is working toward solutions it can afford.

Bad, but not terrible, news is that the combined enrollments of both Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School are roughly 300 students fewer than they were a year ago.

That means the district will have to build a new high school to accommodate about 5 percent fewer students than the 1,700 it had expected to build for.

We are encouraged by the time, effort and concern the school board seems to be devoting to moving the new district forward in a timely manner and by the knowledge and expertise of the professionals helping it along.

As superintendent, Tony Wood knows exactly what needs to be done. He’s aided by chief of staff Phyllis Stewart, and everyone on board is moving forward in a timely manner.

Former director of the state public school transportation and facilities Fred Stein, Architect Eldon Bock of WER, public-finance consultant Scott Beardsley, attorneys Scott Richardson and Patrick Wilson and others are able and knowing guides.

Now, if we can just get district patrons to turn out and vote for the millage increase on Feb. 9, the Jacksonville area will finally get its own schools.