Friday, April 10, 2015

TOP STORY >> Districts may see changes

Leader senior staff writer

State Education Commissioner Johnny Key acts as a one-man school board for three of the four school districts in Pulaski County, meaning it might never again be this “easy” to change the patchwork-quilt of school district boundaries.

That’s according to Board of Education member Jay Barth, the Hendrix College political science professor who suggested and chairs the committee studying possible boundary changes to county districts, consolidating them to one countywide or two — one north and one south of the river.

The Pulaski County Special School District was taken over by the state for reasons of fiscal distress in 2011. Its board was dissolved, the superintendent fired and unions decertified.

The breakaway Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District remains for another school year under the flag of PCSSD, and by default, Key is that district’s board as well.

This year, with six schools in academic distress, the state took over the Little Rock School District as well, dissolved its board but retained Superintendent Dexter Suggs.

Its de facto school board?

It’s Johnny Key.

Of the four districts in Pulaski County, only North Little Rock still has its own board.

The druthers and demands of those districts, plus distinct communities and cities are all over the place.

Having heard in March from superintendents for PCSSD, JNP, North Little Rock and Little Rock schools, this week Barth’s committee heard from spokesmen for an independent Sherwood district and a Maumelle district, as well as Scott and Shannon Hills.

When the committee met this week, it heard from Sherwood, Sylvan Hills, Maumelle and Scott representatives.

Alternatives suggested ranged from the status quo to one countywide district.

An option in between would divide the county into two districts, one north of the Arkansas River, one south.

At Suggs’ request, Metroplan GIS planner Jeff Runder prepared data and maps pertaining to race and the tax base for that two-district plan and brought them to this week’s meeting.

Barth said Friday that, at first impression, nothing seemed to disqualify the model.

Pulaski County Schools, particularly PCSSD and Jacksonville-North Pulaski, still have to meet racial balance requirements under the county’s desegregation plan. Federal District Judge D. Price Marshall must sign off on all significant changes.

Among concerns with the current boundaries, North Little Rock Superintendent Roger Kelly says he would like his district to contain all residents within city limits and so would the Little Rock District. Much of that land in question is currently in the PCSSD.

Shannon Hills is in Saline County, but some of its students are in PCSSD.

Scott Elementary is being closed by PCSSD, and residents there say a reasonable look at the map would send their kids to North Little Rock Schools.

PCSSD also includes a small portion of Lonoke County.

PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess said he hopes the district boundary study won’t hurt the proposed 5.6-mill increase (to 46.3 mills) on the ballot of a special May 12 election.

The district needs the money for a massive rebuilding program to satisfy the court on the issue of facilities.

Linda Remele, one of two former PCSSD administrators co-chairing the Sherwood Public Education Foundation Committee working toward detachment, said, “We’re not behind the scenes at all on (working to pass the increase). We’re out front.”

She said the millage increase is necessary to get PCSSD unitary — out of the desegregation case — which is a prerequisite to Sherwood or Maumelle being allowed to detach.

As for changing the boundaries, she said, that’s all conjecture right now.

Remele added, “Every-thing that happens with Jacksonville-North Pulaski and PCSSD, affects Sherwood because they’re going to pave the path. They will set a precedent.

“Whatever happens there, the same thing is probably going to happen with us. We want it to be done fairly.”

Barth said a public hearing on the matter would be held at 1 p.m. May 11 in the Arch Ford Education Building boardroom. The committee will also accept written comments.

He said he and the other committee members — board president Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock, Kim Davis of Fayetteville and Diane Zook from Melbourne — hadn’t discussed the matter yet, but one thing’s become apparent to him.

“If you start playing with one piece of the puzzle, there are consequences for the other parts,” he said. “I knew this was going to be complex, but I didn’t realize how complex.

“We will begin talking about what direction to take,” Barth said Friday. “What’s the best option for the future?”

Then they will determine a timeline and whether or not to draft a written report to the board or present an oral report.

Barth said, “We need to be getting our thoughts together in advance of the June 1 deadline.”