Wednesday, April 29, 2015

EDITORIAL >> New district fields all stars

Tony Wood, Jacksonville-North Pulaski’s superintendent-select, is due to take over those duties for the fledgling district July 1 from hometown hero Bobby Lester, and it’s hard to imagine anyone better qualified for the job.

Wood is the former state education commissioner who was replaced March 25 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appointment, Johnny Key.

A reception will be held Monday at the Jackson-ville Community Center to introduce Wood to district principals, local officials and others.

He has been intimately involved in all things Pulaski County Special School District and JNP for about a year, serving as a one-man, de-facto board for both.

That’s because the state took over PCSSD in 2011 for reasons of fiscal distress, fired the superintendent and dissolved the school board.

Wood knows state education law, the history of the desegregation agreement and the Jacksonville detachment movement and is experienced in aspects of school construction finance and school facilities. He’s also a longtime superintendent.

A former Searcy superintendent, Wood is a local boy, and it is serendipity that he becomes available just when JNP needs him.

The same can be said of the hiring of Charles Stein, head of the state transportation and facilities department, and attorney Scott Richardson, who was hired to address desegregation matters for the new district.

It’s kinda like an all-star team — like when Lebron James decided to take his talents to South Beach and join up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade as the nucleus of the Miami Heat, which became the best team in the league. Only with less hoopla and ego.

No one is more knowledgeable than Stein about the state facilities partnership program — which helps pay for academic spaces, and he was already set to retire this summer.

Richardson, who represented the state through years of desegregation litigation and negotiation, became available when Leslie Rutledge was elected attorney general, and he resigned before she could fire him.

Already on the team are Lester, chief of staff Phyllis Stewart and attorney Patrick Wilson, previously the attorney for the Jacksonville Education Corps.

Wood is welcome to choose his own team, but we like Stewart and Wilson just fine.

Wood’s selection is widely heralded with the exception of some teachers who believe he has signed off on a dual seniority track for the two districts and already sold them down the river. The PCSSD certified personnel policy committee doesn’t like Superintendent Jerry Guess’ dual track idea and they are submitting one of their own for consideration.

Regardless, there is a great feeling of job insecurity and uncertainty on two fronts among those teachers.

Most immediately, the enrollment decrease of about 400 students and the closing of Northwood Middle School and Scott Elementary School will result in a reshuffling of students and thus teachers. Districtwide, between 60 and 90 positions may be eliminated, Guess said. He says that many of those slots will be eliminated through attrition, but an elementary school teacher can’t replace a retiring high school Spanish teacher.

Guess has proposed a two-track seniority system to help navigate the tricky teacher assignment piece of the split between the districts for the 2016-17 school year, JNP’s first as a standalone district. His proposal would freeze teachers at their current locations immediately, and, except for purposes of racial balance, would not let them transfer districts.

The personnel policy committee, led by Pam Fitzgiven, objects to that and prefers the model used twice previously when the district contracted.

JNP board president Daniel Gray says Guess’ proposal is not fair to teachers. He and Fitzgiven believe teachers should have the maximum possible flexibility in selecting which district they prefer to work for — and so do we.

As a smaller, poorer district, the Jacksonville pay scale will be lower than that of PCSSD. One district might be much more convenient to a teacher than the other, and they might prefer to work in the district their children attend.

Some teachers are miffed that PCSSD would non-renew teachers working in Jacksonville-area schools at the end of the 2015-16 school year, but PCSSD can’t hire 300 teachers more than it will need or afford, and it can’t obligate the Jacksonville board to hire them either.

Jacksonville will need about that many teachers, and it’s not unreasonable to think that many non-renewed teachers would be hired there.

So far, this is one of the most serious difficulties facing detachment. The other is the $20.8 million one-time facilities-construction money — the last installment of state desegregation payments — the state will pay PCSSD for the 2017-18 school year.

PCSSD says it needs all that money to bring its facilities up to snuff, especially if voters fail to pass a 5.6-mill property tax increase May 12.

But JNP believes that, since it is relieving PCSSD of about a quarter of its students, Jacksonville should get roughly a quarter — about $5 million — of that. If the two districts cannot work out these difficulties themselves, they will have to sit down with a mediator.

We’d like to see Jacksonville get a quarter of that money and would like to see all teachers free to apply for openings in both districts.