Friday, March 11, 2016

TOP STORY >> Fresh start in Jacksonville, PCSSD

Leader senior staff writer

The sudden release of the Pulaski County Special School District from fiscal distress and state control means that both the mother district and the fledgling Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District detaching from it will get a fresh start in the 2016-17 school year.

While JNPSD continues hiring, prepares to buy existing school buildings from PCSSD and works to blend two high schools into one by the start of school, the state Board of Education on Thursday unanimously approved Education Commissioner Johnny Key’s recommendations that PCSSD, along with the Helena-West Helena school district, be released from fiscal distress and take back control from the state.

The state board placed PCSSD in fiscal distress in 2011, in part for its declining end-of-year legal balance (carry over) and for lack of transparency and accountability on purchasing.

The state fired PCSSD Superintendent Charles Hopson and replaced him with Superintendent Jerry Guess. Guess, with the blessing of then-Commissioner Tom Kimbrell, disbanded the seven-member elected school board that, along with predecessors, ran the district into the ground.

From then until now, the state education commissioner has served as a one-man school board — first Kimbrell, then Tony Wood (now JNPSD superintendent) and now Key, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appointee.

PCSSD also has a citizens advisory board that makes recommendations to Key.

That will continue until after a new PCSSD school board is elected on Sept. 20 and that board receives school board training. Then PCSSD is again in charge of its own destiny.

With the departure of about 4,000 students from the Jacksonville-North Pulaski area, PCSSD adopted a seven-zone configuration from which to elect the seven-member board.

Guess said Thursday that running the district with the loss of income from taxes on property now in the JNP attendance area — as much as $40 million a year, he said — would create a big challenge, as would the negotiated loss of about $20 million a year in desegregation payments from the state after next school year.

About a month ago, Guess said those were big obstacles and he thought the state should control of PCSSD for another school year. After the vote Thursday, he said he works for Key and the board, and they had spoken.

Meanwhile, the JNPSD transition team is working to blend two existing high schools into one by the start of next school year.

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski high school transition team has received about 60 suggested combinations for school colors and 80 different mascot recommendations for the new school to form when Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School merge.

That merger will happen with the opening of the new district in August.

More than 300 community residents responded to the survey, according to Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Owoh.

Among the most popular colors so far are Jacksonville’s red and white, North Pulaski’s maroon and gold and a combination, red and gold, Owoh said.

North Pulaski’s falcon, Jacksonville’s red devil and the mythical phoenix are among the top mascot recommendations.

The principal of both high schools, students from each, parents and administrators comprise the transition team.

Owoh said the team would meet with business leaders before making a recommendation to the board, probably at the April meeting.

The two school bands have already been practicing together.

In addition to selecting school colors and mascots, the timeline for the switch is undecided. If it takes effect with the start of the new school year, the district must move quickly to order fall sports uniforms and select the mascot, according to Owoh.

Some have suggested leaving the changes and buying of new uniforms until the new high school opens for the 2019-20 school year, which would defer the cost as well. Others like the idea of making the change to coincide with the district’s new standalone status this coming school year.

The transition committee is reaching out to community and civic organizations for suggestions and ideas not only for new school colors and a new mascot but also for general ideas on how to make this transition smooth and successful.

Community members are encouraged to contact Owoh by email at or by phone at 501-519-3648 or contact Jada Ellis by email at or by phone at 501-246-0621.