Friday, July 01, 2016

TOP STORY >> New district celebrates its independence

Leader senior staff writer

Friday was Independence Day, but not the independence of this nation from Great Britain in 1776, that’s Monday, the Fourth of July.

But Jacksonville-area residents officially won independence from the Pulaski County Special School District at 12:01 a.m. Friday after 30 years of taxation without much representation.

If you think of it as the birth of the new standalone Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, the gestation period was about 30 years — a long and difficult labor by any standard.

Not everyone involved lived long enough to see Jacksonville with its own school district, but the struggle has passed from person to person and generation to generation.

A school district of its own has long been seen as the key to improving education for local children and as the answer to the long-stagnant growth of the area. Airmen and others moving to the area have often opted to locate in Cabot, Austin and Ward rather than send their children to the troubled PCSSD, embroiled in civil rights litigation.


“Now we’re totally separated,” said Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher. Every thing that happens now is about us. It’s our responsibility. We’re not the sidecar anymore,” hooked to PCSSD.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said School Board President Daniel Gray, who’s been among the navigators in the final run-up to a stand-alone district. “A lot of people put a lot of work into it. Truly this is just the beginning, there’s lot of work ahead. Now we can take care of our kids in our community.”

Six weeks from now, the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District will throw open its doors to students for the first time on Aug. 15.


A lot has happened to get to this day.

Former State Rep. Pat Bond and later her son Will Bond got laws amended to help make it possible.

PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess and Joshua Intervenors attorneys app-roved language in the desegregation suit settlement that made a Jacksonville district possible, and then about 95 percent the people of the Jacksonville and north Pulaski County area voted to breakaway from PCSSD and have their own district.

A 7.6-mill property tax increase then passed by a much narrower margin—money with which to build a new high school and an elementary school.

Architects Witsell, Evans and Rasco was hired to begin planning those schools with the help of Baldwin and Shell Construction.


Asbestos abatement will begin soon in the old school buildings at the site of the future Jacksonville High School, expected to open in August 2019.

Bobby Lester came out of retirement to guide the appointed school board through the early stages of detachment from PCSSD. Lester laid out a schedule of dates and deadlines to be ready for the new district to stand alone this year, beginning now.

Following its election, a permanent school board hired Tony Wood, the former state Education Commissioner, as its first superintendent.

Wood began that job exactly a year ago, he said Friday.

“I came in on a Wednesday morning a year ago today,” Wood said Friday.


“It’s really comparable to a garden,” Wood said. “Each and every day you water, weed and nurture it, and see some growth. But go away and come back and look at the tremendous change.”

“Take stock of accomplishments of this group, the school board, with support of the community,” he said.

The district has a long-term facilities plan. It has passed two millages, drawn up attendance zones, extensive board policies and a parent-student handbook.

“We have employed 402 people,” Wood said, “through sheer effort that had to be brought to bear — especially in this county.” He said the board still needs to hire 28 more certified employees—mostly teachers.

Most districts have a minimal turnover from year to year, perhaps 10 percent, but JNPSD, starting from scratch, had to interview and vet enough people to fill about 450 jobs.

Hiring and student assignment to the various elementary schools had to satisfy the desegregation requirements.


“Now we’re starting to look at isolated details of being prepared to welcome kids back in six weeks,” he said.

Wood, seated in his office at the administration building — formerly the Jacksonville Police Department — pointed to the changes in that building since the city made it available to the district.

“There are just a lot of moving parts,” Wood said.

Receiving and rebranding 78 school buses from PCSSD, creating logistically sound bus routes, separation of property — books, computers, desks, for instance — financial transfers and the sale of school and support buildings by PCSSD to the new district.

We need to write PCSSD a check for those buildings, Wood said, about $10.3 million.

The positive thing has been the community support and hiring the professionals, but the challenge is the lack of having a history and having data.

While the district’s salary schedule is extremely competitive with area districts of similar size for new and less experienced teachers, at the top end it stops thousands of dollars a year short of competing with PCSSD.

Wood and the board say they would like to pay better at the top end, but lacking the history, they can’t commit to salaries that they may not be able to afford.

“Some challenges that await are not going to occur until school starts,” Wood said. “Looking at the capacity at different school sites—even with enrollment figures and with work on routing and transportation—some adjustments will probably need to be made.”