Friday, January 20, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Guess did it, PCSSD lives

The Pulaski County Special School District, newly released from state control and operating under an elected school board for the first time in five years, is wasting no time in its effort to rebuild its schools and its reputation after years of mismanagement.

Last week, the PCSSD board announced a plan to modernize the Sylvan Hills High School campus in a $65 million project that will include a new main building, while vastly renovating the old one and add new athletics facilities.

It’s almost certain voters will be asked to raise taxes or at least extend the current millage 13 years longer. That will be tough. Jacksonville’s effort to raise taxes to build two new schools nearly failed.

If residents in the PCSSD reject a tax increase, Sylvan Hills will get several trailers instead.

The Sherwood high school has been on PCSSD’s to-do list for years. It helps that the board’s president, Linda Remele, is from Sherwood and is a retired assistant superintendent with PCSSD.

She worked under a string of superintendents who dodged the heavy lifting required to improve the district’s facilities and test scores.

It wasn’t until Dr. Jerry Guess was installed by the state as superintendent in 2011 that PCSSD began to show signs of hope.

Guess, playing the stern father, deserves praise for allowing Jacksonville to break away from PCSSD. None of the superintendents before him supported the plan. They were content with Jacksonville as a convenient tax base and overlooked the city’s crumbling schools.

Guess’ tightfistedness has paid off. PCSSD was nearly broke when he took over and the district seemed beyond saving. It had $3.5 million in reserves and was spending $6.5 million more than its revenues. Today, its reserves are at $26.3 million and it has spent $14.7 million less than its revenues.

He did it by doing away with teachers’ pay raises and cutting benefits, consolidating schools and lowering overhead expenses. He also stripped the teachers union of its bargaining power, which helped PCSSD save millions of dollars every year. That didn’t make him popular with teachers, but he saved the district from going under.

Because of his tenacity, PCSSD is in a position to afford to build a new Sylvan Hills High School. It will allow Sherwood to continue building rooftops and attract families to the area. Keep that in mind when a millage increase is put to a vote.

The district’s future will still be rocky, but whenever Guess leaves, PCSSD will be in far better condition than when he started.

When the school board does start searching for his replacement, it should keep up the good work and avoid the in-fighting that led to its financial ruin and state stewardship. Guess will not easily return to clean up the mess again.

He would make a knowledgeable and experienced state education commissioner. The governor should keep him in mind.