Friday, January 15, 2016

TOPSTORY >> District goes forward with court assent

Leader senior staff write

Writing Thursday that “we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall, Jr., signed off on the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District’s master facilities plan, denying Joshua Intervenors attorney John Walker’s petition for an evidentiary hearing on the matter.

“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 master plan challenged by Walker as being too little, calls for building a new high school at the Main Street site of the old middle school, a new elementary school on Little Rock Air Force Base land, remodeling the existing North Pulaski High School building into a district-wide middle school and adding new multipurpose buildings at the four other elementary schools — if voters approve a millage increase.

Walker contended that plan favored white students over black and that the only by replacing those four elementary schools as well would comply with desegregation Plan 2000.

The district, answering Walker’s filing, said there wasn’t enough money to build six new schools and remodel another—hence the remark about the perfect and the good.

Walker didn’t come away completely empty-handed. Marshall gave the district until the end of this year to draft a new master plan for the 2019 round of school partnership matching money — one that would replace the four other elementary schools.

JNP Superintendent Tony Wood said Friday that even as they prepare for the Feb. 9 millage tax increase election and to transition July 1 to a fully independent, stand-alone district, he and others are thinking about that next facilities plan.

Chuck Stein, the district’s consultant for its master facilities plan and partnership funding program, will work on the new master plan the judge wants by the end of the year, along with Wood, Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Owoh and others.

Until his retirement last summer, Stein was director of the state’s facilities plan and state partnership program.

Even implementing the existing master plan is dependent upon district patrons’ approval of a 7.6 mill property tax increase, which they will vote on Feb. 9. Early voting begins Feb. 2.

Marshall’s order denying an evidentiary hearing on the adequacy of the plan considered not only Walker’s brief and the new district’s answer, but also a letter from Court Desegregation Monitor Margie Powell — which found the plan compliant — and a letter from Stein.

In making his ruling, 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.”

While Walker held that concentrating on a new elementary school combining students from Tolleson and Arnold Drive was a favor to white students and white flight, Marshall wrote that there was no evidence that the new school “would become a white-flight school.” He said the expectation that school would receive about half of the $16 million cost from the Defense Department shows “good stewardship of limited public dollars, not discriminatory intent.”

But of the plan, Marshall wrote, “there’s something missing. No plan or timetable for replacing the four other elementary schools (Bayou Meto, Dupree, Pinewood and Taylor) is included.”

“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.”

Stein said there should be no problem meeting the judge’s order preparing a state master plan by the end of this year, and that the judge’s process “fits very well into the state time line,” which would require a preliminary 2017-2019 master plan and partnership timetable, requiring submission by Feb. 1, 2017.

As part of the effort to pass the millage increase, JNPSD officials attended a public meeting at Bayou Meto Baptist Church on Thursday evening.

Wood and JNP school board president Daniel Gray were asked about district finances by some concerned about or against the increase.

The new 7.6-mill tax increase 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.

Including all sources of income, Wood said the district revenue for the first year would be about $37 million to $40 million, including taxes, minimum foundation aid from the state and a one-time state desegregation payment of about $5 million.

In telling the new district to draw up that additional master plan, the judge noted the uncertainties, such as Defense Department funding, construction costs, approving the millage increase and the amount of state funding.

“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 said.

Marshall noted the progress made over the past five years toward PCSSD becoming completely unitary.