Tuesday, February 02, 2016

EDITORIAL >> Millage election to decide future

Jacksonville-area residents are about to decide the future of their community as they vote on a proposed millage increase for their new school district. Election Day is Tuesday, but early voting is underway.

This is probably the most important election in the city’s history. Eighteen months ago, voters overwhelmingly approved establishing the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, and last year they elected an independent school board. But that was the easy part: After a quarter century of misrule by a distant and corrupt school district based in south Little Rock, Jacksonville residents decided they’d had enough. Even so, it took a 30-year effort in the state legislature before Jacksonville could leave the Pulaski County Special School District, thanks finally to the efforts 15 years ago of former Rep. Pat Bond and the late Sen. Bill Gwatney.

Now comes the real challenge: How to rebuild the city’s crumbling schools, including Arnold Drive Elementary on Little Rock Air Force Base, where students see their parents fly into harm’s way every month. The least we could do for them is provide modern facilities for these pupils and for students throughout the district.

We can do that for them with a higher millage. If passed, the 7.6-mill increase would pay for $80 million in improvements, including a new high school in downtown Jacksonville and an elementary school along the air base perimeter. Our Air Force friends will help pay for that new elementary school if voters approve the new millage rate.

With a millage increase, Jacksonville will build a new $60 million high school, plus the new elementary school and improvements at all the elementary schools, which will be eventually replaced. Children cannot learn in a fortress-like environment. As we’ve said before, Jacksonville students deserve the same quality schools as those in Cabot, Beebe and elsewhere. The Lighthouse Charter Academies in Jacksonville and the air base have shown the way. According to most educators, a successful school district needs modern facilities, smaller classes, more tutoring, longer school days and a longer school year, well-paid and better-qualified teachers with access to the latest data and a culture of high expectations.

According to Harvard economist Roland Fryer, poverty should not hold a child back. He insists poor children will do well if they’re taught well. “Schools are really enough if they are good schools,” he said recently.

The Jacksonville Rotary Club has endorsed the millage increase. So have the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the Jacksonville City Council, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the North Pulaski Board of Realtors and the Jacksonville Sertoma Club.

Jacksonville cannot compete in the 21st Century without attractive schools that educate students. Property values will go up many times more than the 7.6 millage increase sought by the new school district. If the 7.6-mill increase is approved, owners of $100,000 homes can expect to pay about $150 more a year.

Otherwise, middle-class families will move elsewhere, urban blight will accelerate, driving down property values and, perhaps the most troubling, students will continue to be unprepared for the job market or college.

The Little Rock chamber’s endorsement cited the importance of LRAFB to central Arkansas’ economy and said military members’ families deserve quality schools.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said after the city council voted unanimously to support the millage increase: “Patrons of North Pulaski and Jacksonville overwhelmingly supported the creation of our new district, and they will be called upon once again to finish that job on Feb. 9 with a millage vote to fund projects that will equip our children and teachers with what they’ll need to perform at even higher levels than the surrounding districts.”

Vote YES for the millage increase.