Friday, June 16, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Lester name set in stone

Bobby Lester wasn’t among the four Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District leaders recognized by the state General Assembly and presented citations by state Rep. Bob Johnson of Jacksonville at the June board meeting. Lester went to the front only to pick up the citation for Chief of Staff Phyllis Stewart, who couldn’t attend.

And we cringed a little bit, feeling that perhaps Lester —the new district’s first superintendent and earliest guiding hand — had been passed by.

That was before the Wednesday’s groundbreaking for Jacksonville’s new elementary school. When the tarp was ripped — OK, maybe clumsily unwrapped in a stiff breeze — revealing an artist’s rendering of the new school and JNPSD board president Daniel Gray presented it as the Bobby G. Lester Elementary School.

We don’t know if Lester blushed, maybe he was red in the face from golfing or gardening or going to a grandchild’s ball games, but he said had he known, he would have brought his wife.

Well, she apparently knew, because she came forward from her hiding place in the back of the crowd.

Never in the collective memory of local educators has a new district been formed from part of an existing district in Arkansas and no one knew exactly how to do it.

But Lester, Stewart, Gray and their fellow travelers, with the help of state Education Commissioner Tony Wood, practiced educational midwifery, delivering a district, cutting the umbilical cord and beginning the nurturing.

Lester brought in the search team that hired Wood to replace him. The timing was perfect. Gov. Asa Hutchinson brought in Johnny Key — a man with no education experience but allegiance to his boss — to serve as his cutout in the commissioner’s seat, freeing up Wood with a couple of years before retirement.

Congratulations and thanks to Lester for all he’s done for his community.

This is a great time for students living north of the river.

Not only did Jacksonville break ground Wednesday on the first part of its $102 million building program, but the day before, patrons of the Pulaski County Special School District voted overwhelmingly to extend by 17 years the debt service millage to pay for improvements — in this case a new and reconfigured Sylvan Hills High School campus.

No one disputed the need for more space. Sylvan Hills High School was built for 850 students and the projected enrollment is 1,450 students. A freshman academy was opened in the old Northwood Middle School, and if the millage extension had failed, Superintendent Jerry Guess said plan B was to park 36 mobile classrooms behind the existing high school.

But by a 2-to-1 margin, district voters who did turn out to vote on the millage proposal approved the extension.

That’s a much wider margin than when Jacksonville passed its tax to fund construction, but the Jacksonville tax was a real, 7.6- mill increase, while the tax PCSSD residents voted on merely extends the existing tax for an additional 17 years. The tax doesn’t go up, it goes on.

Of the 77,658 registered voters in the area, 3,972 voted. That’s a turnout of 5.1 percent, even less than Pulaski County Election Director Brian Poe had expected.

But the turnout was heavy in the Sherwood precincts, where voters supported the issue by nearly a 4-to-1 margin.

Those voters approved the millage extension 1,907 to 525.

Thursday night, Stephens Inc.’s vice president for Public Finance, Jack Truemper, set a timeline for advertising and selling the bonds to get the Sylvan Hills project underway.

“I’m ready for the groundbreaking,” PCSSD board president Linda Remele said Tuesday night. The school should be ready for occupancy for the start of classes in August 2019.

Sherwood is determined to detach from PCSSD as well, and there’s also interest in Maumelle to break away, but the courts and the state have said no more detachments until PCSSD and Jacksonville are fully desegregated. The county board voted to hire WER Architects, which had already done about one-third of the work, according to Remele. Baldwin and Shell has been accepted as the general contractor for the new school.

That’s the same team — WER Architects and Baldwin & Shell — that’s working on the Jacksonville schools. That’s progress.