Friday, April 17, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Wood and his faculty

Former Arkansas education commissioner Tony Wood is now, or will be once the contracts are signed, the first official Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District superintendent, succeeding the interim superintendent, Bobby Lester, who’ll keep the job through June.

Before he steps down, let us thank Lester for his service on behalf of the new school district, but also for his decades of hard work as a Pulaski County teacher and superintendent. Lester, a White County native, brings professionalism and humility to an often thankless job. The community has been blessed to have his help as midwife for the new district, and here’s hoping the 70-year-old educator sticks around for a while in a consultant role.

Wood, 64, brings a can-do attitude to the task of rebuilding the northern portion of an often troubled district that has been in state receivership since 2011.

The infant school board for the new district needs to be congratulated for carefully considering all the applicants.

At the April 6 meeting, it was clear that the board thought Dr. Kieth Williams (former Beebe superintendent) — employed with the search firm the board hired to find the district’s first superintendent — would narrow the list of 12 down to two or three.

Instead, Williams made only one recommendation, former state education czar Tony Woods.

Williams exalted Wood’s achievements, record and ability to do the Jacksonville job. When board member LaConda Watson asked who would be second, Williams said Wood was his clear choice.

The board also took a close look at Marvin Burton, the deputy superintendent for the Little Rock School District. The board interviewed both candidates before reconvening Thursday at city hall and deciding on Wood.

Even if Wood was by far the best on paper, and that’s what the search firm believed, you always have a plan B.

Wood will need to focus on building support for a millage increase that will fund new schools and help secure the young district’s finances. It will be a difficult task, but we wish him luck.

What will help any effort to raise money is the state’s recent report on public schools that gave most of the Jacksonville schools a grade of a D or a C. Only one school, Arnold Drive, received a grade of B from the state.

Who was heading the Education Department while the state was calculating the grades? It was Wood. So he clearly knows what’s ahead of him.

Residents here are tired of failing schools and are willing to help however possible. They know it won’t be a quick fix, but the ship needs to be turning.

He also has some fences to mend:

As one of his last decisions as the state’s top educator, Wood signed off on a policy that calls for firing (the official term is “nonrenewal of contracts”) all Jacksonville-based teachers at the end of next year.

Now he is to be the boss of those same teachers. Even after they are all let go, a few, maybe even a majority, will be rehired.

So on day one, when Wood walks into the new district’s office, he should reach out to his 300 upset teachers, plus classified employees from secretaries to bus drivers to lunchroom cooks. Yes, they are all being let go.

Getting rid of all the teachers is not the do-all answer for the new district.

The students here need the continuity of the teachers they know, teachers the community knows, teachers the administrators know.

The talent of Jacksonville-based teachers is diverse and, in the end, Pulaski County Special School District officials will wish they had kept the Jacksonville teachers and let some others in their district go.

Many Jacksonville-based teachers hold multiple degrees and licenses, and these veteran teachers have been through tornadoes, fires, frozen pipes, no heat, excessive heat, bats in the roof and bees in the wall. They can monitor and adjust — that’s something newbies fresh off the college campus can’t do.

Inexpensive teachers who are being hailed as young and innovative are truthfully just cheap and inexperienced.

The board needs to keep an eye on the money, but at the heart of any decision is what is best for the students. Keeping students in mind will make the district what the board, the community and students want it to be – top in the state; second to none; soaring higher.

To put it even more succinctly: Be damned the money. It’s about the kids.

Welcome to Jacksonville, Tony Wood. We are happy to have you.