Friday, March 17, 2017

TOP STORY >> Judge orders both sides fix school issues

Leader senior staff writer

Unless all sides in the sprawling desegregation case can reach an agreement on unitary status for facilities and staffing with the help of Magistrate Jerome Kearney in April, the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District and the Joshua Intervenors will go to trial next February, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall said at the desegregation status hearing this week.

In addition to facilities and staffing, JNPSD also has failed to achieve desegregation in the areas of academics, discipline and monitoring.

As far as achieving unitary status in staffing, John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Inter-venors, says JNPSD hasn’t done enough. In terms of facilities, Walker says the planned new $61 million high school looks like a jail and the black students will suffer because the new district isn’t building new schools fast enough.

He told Marshall that he believed the Pulaski County Special School District would satisfy the Intervenors’ before a trial—particularly regarding staffing—but not JNPSD.

Elementary school teachers at JNPSD, which is more than half black, account for between 19 percent and 22 percent in most schools, and as low as 13 percent in one.

Walker maintains efforts to recruit and retain black teachers at every level is insufficient, according to Scott Richardson, attorney for JNPSD.


Half of all principals and assistant principals are black, Richardson said.

The district will begin construction of the new high school and a single new elementary school to replace Tolleson and Arnold Drive elementary schools. A second new elementary school, probably to replace Pinewood and Dupree is possible by 2021, but Walker has said Jacksonville’s plan to build new schools stretches out to 2035.

The fledgling district already has an ambitious building plan in place and 76 percent of all JNPSD students and 80 percent of black students would be in new or newly renovated schools within seven years, Richardson said Thursday.

The district will spend about $101 million over the next two years to build the first schools, two new multipurpose buildings for other elementary schools and to rehabilitate the former North Pulaski High School as the district’s one junior high.

“The judge said the district needs a plan for replacing all the elementary schools,” Richardson said. “We’ve got that in place, but it’s going to take a long time. Building schools is expensive, takes time.”

As fast as the district finances will support building new schools, JNPSD will build them, Richardson said. “If Walker has an idea for funding new schools, we’re all ears.”

Wood concurs, “I don’t know how we’d pay for anything else. We’ve made good efforts, have a solid plan and the resources to pay for the commitments we’ve made.”

Wood, who will retire June 30, was attending his last regularly scheduled status hearing Wednesday, and Marshall took the opportunity to thank Wood for his excellent leadership.


Walker has suggested that the district increase property taxes again to build schools faster, but in February 2016, district residents narrowly approved the 7.6-mill property tax increase that’s helping fund the building program.

That’s “the biggest millage increase since I’ve been in office,” said Pulaski County Treasurer Debra Buckner, who has been treasurer for about 17 years.

That’s enough to secure about $46 million in construction loans.

JNPSD’s wealth index, being posted today to the state facilities and transportation department website, is .47015 (Wood had estimated .47) according to Brad Montgomery, the director. That means that the state will pay 47 percent of the cost of qualifying academic space.


Pulaski County Special School District is working to meet its facilities needs to achieve unitary status, funding construction of a new Robinson Middle School, Mills High School and refurbishing the existing high school as the new Fuller Middle School.

Now the new school board and Superintendent Jerry Guess will ask voters, who overwhelmingly rejected a 5.6-mill property tax increase in November to extend the existing millage rate for another 13 years at a May 9 election.

That would raise $65 million to expand the existing Sylvan Hills High School to accommodate a rapidly growing enrollment.