Tuesday, September 12, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Explaining school funds

If the Pulaski County Special School District is building a nicer new school for the whiter, richer kids in west Little Rock than for the blacker, poorer one in the southeast part of the county, well, that’s just not right.

If this is true, it’s a huge embarrassment—especially if someone manipulated that disparity.

Apparently the school board and administration think so as well. If it’s true, and there’s some indication that it is, “we want to find out where it went wrong,” PCSSD board president Linda Remele says. “We’re committed to fixing it if it did go astray.”

The two construction projects were part of a package deal promoted by then-Superintendent Jerry Guess.

A patron noticed the apparent disparity after visiting the two schools and reported it to PCSSD interim-Superintendent Janice Warren. The concern became public Friday, when Sam Jones, the district’s attorney, filed the information in a supplemental report just in time for consideration in a regularly scheduled desegregation hearing before U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall.

John Walker – attorney-for-life for the Joshua Intervenors – wasted no time suggesting fraud and wanting answers.

Walker said that both the Mills project, which includes transforming the old high school into a “new” middle school and the Robinson Middle School project that included a gym and auditorium to be shared with the adjacent Robinson High School, were promised as $55 million projects to be occupied at the same time.

Jones said Guess and State Education Commissioner Johnny Key – acting in place of the then-dissolved PCSSD School Board – authorized that amount in June 2015 to construct a new Mills High School and renovate the old one to replace Fuller Middle School.

The refurbished school will be rebranded Mills Middle School, by the way.

But apparently on March 14, 2016, the architects for Mills were directed to work toward a $35 million budget. Reached at home Friday evening, Guess called the Mills contract “a guaranteed $40 million maximum contract.”

Remele, who was elected president when PCSSD was released from fiscal distress and took back local control in January, said her understanding was both projects would be a total of $80 million – $55 million for Mills and $40 million for Robinson Middle School.

At any rate, it appears that the Robinson work in the gym area has more windows, nicer fixtures and higher-end finishes.

Among other questions, are there any size differences in the weight rooms, indoor practice facilities and coaches and athletic personnel offices?

Certain aspects of the facilities at Robinson may involve features that could be regarded as superior in quality to those at Mills, Jones told the judge.

Investigators will work with construction managers Baldwin and Shell and go over books to see what’s been paid.

The judge gave PCSSD 30 days to complete the investigation and file copies with the court, and another 15 days for Walker to respond. After that, desegregation monitor Margie Powell will have at least 15 days to sort through those documents and find out the truth.

Not figuring into this is a $60 million or so expansion and makeover to the Sylvan Hills campus, where growth is so great that they’ve had to bus ninth graders over to the old Northwood Middle School.

We got one chance to get this right, folks. Generations of students will be educated in the new schools.