Wednesday, January 20, 2016

TOP STORY >> Millage hike is needed

Leader executive editor

Jacksonville residents are fortunate that U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., a brilliant jurist, is overseeing their move toward independence from the Pulaski County Special School District after decades of turmoil.

With encouragement from Judge Marshall, let’s hope voters will approve a 7.6-mill property tax increase on Feb. 9 to pay for $80 million in school improvements. Early voting begins Feb. 2.

The new district has bounced around from court to court, often encountering judges who knew nothing about the needs of Jacksonville students. But Marshall understands what the new district needs: Modern facilities with knowledgeable staff dedicated to improving student test scores and turning out young scholars who can compete in our modern world.

Marshall, who is in the mold of Learned Hand (the greatest federal judge who never made it to the Supreme Court), last week approved Jacksonville’s facilities plan despite an objection from civil rights attorney John Walker.

Although far from perfect, the facilities plan includes a new high school on the site of the old middle schools, a new elementary school near the air base, remodeling North Pulaski High School as a middle school and adding multi-purpose buildings at all of the other elementary schools.

Marshall cautioned that building a new high school and an elementary school is only a start. The new district must also work toward arranging state financing and replace its four other dilapidated elementary schools that should have been demolished years ago.

He wants Jacksonville schools as up to date as those in Maumelle and Sherwood that the Joshua Intervenors and Walker cited on behalf of minority students.

The judge could also point to the new Lighthouse Academy Charter Schools in Jacksonville and on the air base, as well as new facilities in Cabot and elsewhere that meet standards required by the state and federal courts. Surely youngsters in Jacksonville deserve no less.

“We must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” wrote Marshall as he signed off on the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District’s master facilities plan.

“The court holds that JNPSD’s proposed master facilities plan, though incomplete, keeps faith with Plan 2000 and is likely to promote, not hinder, eliminating the vestiges of past discrimination insofar as practical,” Marshall wrote.

“The proposed master plan is approved with an important condition: it must be supplemented by (Dec. 31, 2016) with when-and-how specifics about replacing the four other elementary schools, so that all the new district’s elementary schools are equal. Joshua’s objections are overruled and its request for an evidentiary hearing is denied.”

The new district says there won’t be enough money to build six new elementaries. “That murky and complicated future, however, is precisely why JNPSD needs a complete plan for replacing all elementary facilities — with options, contingencies, fallbacks and play in the joints to accommodate the developing circumstances,” the judge wrote.

Marshall gave the district until the end of this year to draft a new master plan for 2019, when a new round of state school partnership matching money becomes available that would replace the four other elementary schools.

JNP Superintendent Tony Wood told our reporter John Hofheimer that a new facilities plan is in the works even as the district prepares for the Feb. 9 millage-tax increase and becomes fully independent July 1.

Marshall noted that the facilities master plan would be “a significant step toward equal facilities for all students. The new high school and middle school will serve children of all races. Locating the high school in downtown Jacksonville signals a commitment — not only to that city’s hub, but to the many African-American families and their children who live close by.”

Walker objected to combining Arnold Drive elementary school on the air base and the nearby Tolleson elementary into a new school along the base perimeter, calling it a gift to white students. Apparently, Walker hasn’t been on the base to notice how many minority students come from military families.

Marshall dismissed Walker’s claim that the new elementary “would become a white-flight school.” The judge pointed out the Defense Department would pay up to half the cost of the new elementary school, which shows “good stewardship of limited public dollars, not discriminatory intent,” he wrote.

But Marshall is still not satisfied: “There’s something missing,” he continued. “No plan or timetable for replacing the four other elementary schools (Bayou Meto, Dupree, Pinewood and Taylor) is included.”

Marshall wrote, “To achieve unitary status, JNPSD must have a plan for making all facilities clean, safe, attractive and equal and must be implementing that plan in good faith to the extent practicable.”

The 7.6-mill tax increase, if passed, would make property tax millage in the district 48.3 mills, the same as North Little Rock, and about 2 mills higher than the Little Rock School District — 46.4 mills.

The new district is preparing a budget of about $37 million to $40 million, including new taxes for next year, minimum foundation aid from the state and a one-time state desegregation payment of about $5 million.

Funding is not guaranteed, but Jacksonville could show Judge Marshall how the new district will not only put its finances in order but make JNPSD a beacon of hope for its students.

Walker could still take his case to the Eighth U.S. Court of Appeals, where Marshall might serve one day, probably with as much distinction as he has in Arkansas.
Once Marshall releases the Jacksonville district from court supervision, the JNPSD board should consider naming the new high school for the distinguished jurist.
Marshall High School has a nice ring to it.