Friday, August 07, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Dog gone it, here to stay

Almost all pet owners understand the importance of searching for their next pet. Whether it’s finding the right breed or visiting the local shelters, hoping to save the life of the perfect animal, finding the right pet is an endeavor most people have undertaken at some point. But, sometimes, pets find their owners.

Such was the case on July 2, when a Labrador-pit bull mix arrived in the backyard of my house outside Cabot around 10 p.m. My wife and I already owned three girls: a collie-St. Bernard mix, a Jack Russell-rat terrier mix and a Chihuahua.

I was taking the big girl, Evangeline, out for the last time at about 10 p.m. that Thursday when I spotted what would become the fourth dog in our household.

She was lying flat on her belly with her chin on the ground about 30 feet away, just watching. Unbeknownst to me or Evangeline, we had been selected to provide this new girl a home.

Introductions were cautious that night. Though thick and muscular, she was obviously hungry and thirsty. She was wearing a veterinarian’s tag, and the thought was that, if she was still there in the morning, we could call the vet and track down the owners.

A cup of food and a bowl of water on the front porch sealed the deal on the new home, at least in the mind of the newcomer.

Since Friday was July 3, the vet’s office, which was on Little Rock Air Force Base, was closed for the holiday weekend. So the new girl stayed the weekend. She was left outside again on Friday, and, again, was still there on Saturday. That night, Fourth of July fireworks were clearly scaring the poor thing, so my wife decided to let her inside.

It’s a full-blown move-in now, despite our best efforts.

On Monday, the vet’s office had no record of the tag number on the dog, which had now been at its new home for four days. We called the shelter, the dog was taken to be scanned for a chip that would find the owner, and the Arkansas Lost and Found Pet Network website received and posted the dog’s picture.

On Tuesday, the owners were found. The dog had been missing since March. And, though about seven years old, she had only been in that home for about a year. She had wandered up to them as well. The husband was away for work, and the wife had relegated the dog to live outside after she bit the cat. Since then, the canine had been prone to long periods of absence and had disappeared altogether in early March.

It wasn’t a joyous reunification on either side when they came to pick her up and take her home. When the dog finally recognized her former owners were there to pick her up, she dutifully jumped into the back of their SUV.

It was mentioned in passing what a friendly dog she is and how my wife had grown fairly fond of her over the past few days. About an hour later, the phone rang with an offer from the newly reunited family to let my wife have the dog.

I put my foot down and said our three dogs, plus two cats, were enough. She was a little disappointed, but agreed, and the offer was turned down.

The dog had other plans though.

Exactly one week went by, and, during breakfast, her smiling face appeared on the steps looking in through the patio door.

The door was opened and she walked in and laid down underneath the coffee table.

A few moments later, she was outside again, shoving the tattered soccer ball around the yard with her nose as fast as she could go, something she had grown fond of doing during her previous stint at our home, before jumping into the kiddie pool, slurping water as messily and loudly as any dog has ever done.

A phone call to her family wasn’t returned. Bobbi McGee, the name she was given a couple weeks later, was home at last. She had been trying to tell us that for almost two weeks, and we finally got the message. — Ray Benton

TOP STORY >> Bonds set for several projects

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville City Council on Thursday passed 9-1 an ordinance issuing $8.8 million in 15-year bonds to pay off three loans and fund several improvements.

Projects to be funded through the bond issue include:

• Building a long-planned roundabout at General Samuels and Harris roads,

• Renovating the fire department’s Central Station at 900 N. Redmond Road,

• Buying two new fire engines and a ladder truck;

• Expanding the Splash Zone water park by adding a concrete splash pad with a play structure that has a bucket on top dumping water every five to 10 minutes on kids;

• Replacing a structure at the Marshall Smith playground in Dupree Park,

• And buying new exercise machines for the community center.

Finance director Cheryl Erkel said the loans to be paid off break down to approximately $1.3 million for the Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Range, $1.4 million for the public safety complex that now houses the police department and $1.9 million for AWIN radios the city was required to purchase for its 911 center.

The city is still expecting $855,000 of the $2 million grant promised by the Game and Fish Foundation for the shooting range, she noted.

Taking care of the loans this way will drop Jacksonville’s monthly payments from around $150,000 to around $62,000, with the city paying a lower and varying interest rate, Erkel told The Leader.

The monthly savings — approximately $88,000 — will be used to purchase police cars and take care of other short-term needs, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said previously. He noted that a 15-year bond shouldn’t fund things with life spans shorter than that.

The mayor also said the process began with a survey of all the departments, which were asked for their short-, mid- and long-term needs.

On Thursday, Fletcher told the council, “This is going to be a good thing for the city, I think, for several reasons. One, it frees up our cash flow as we get ready to go into the budget for next year and deal with things that we have not been able to deal with in the past.

“The projects that are on this bond issue are long-term things that we could never afford to save up to do, and they are needs in this community. Some of them are very, very vital needs, immediate needs,” the mayor continued.

He added that the fire station had not been kept up and firefighters quarters needed to be moved downstairs to avoid liabilities associated with them becoming injured from sliding down the iconic pole.

The mayor also said an unsafe structure at the Marshall Smith playground was removed last fall and had needed to be replaced since then.

He added that Splash Zone is a tourist attraction, bringing people from Greenbrier, Sheridan and elsewhere.

Alderman Mary Twitty asked Parks Director Kevin House what exercise equipment would be replaced. He said it would mainly be treadmills and ellipticals, but decisions had not been made yet.

A public hearing was held before this week’s vote.

No one spoke for or against the ordinance, but — at the mayor’s prompting — Jack Truemper of Stephens, Inc. addressed the council.

“We offered your bonds yesterday for sale. We went to the market at 9 o’clock yesterday morning, and we had a very successful sale. We were able to call the city about 11 o’clock and give you all a commitment to underwrite the bonds, which locked in your interest rates at an all-inclusive cost of 3.03 percent.

“We are set to close the bond issue on Sept. 15,” he continued. “That’s when construction funds will be sent to the city along with the amount of funds that will be available to pay off the three loans. The bonds were very well received in the marketplace.”

Alderman Mike Traylor, the lone “no” vote, also spoke. He pointed out that the roundabout was not included in the bond issue when it was first discussed in May.

The mayor responded that he thought it was wise to include the roundabout rather than make cuts elsewhere to come up with the money to construct it.

Traylor also asked Truemper for clarification on what had been offered and what was received. Truemper answered, “We went out there and put the bond issue, which we had structured to have what we call serial maturities, which means you have maturities maturing every year, ’16 out to 2030, and there was a principal amount of bonds at each of those maturities and interest rates that the investor would receive for purchasing those maturities.

“About a week ago, we sent out what is called a preliminary official statement to our sales force, which is an offering document which tells the story of the bond issue and of the city of Jacksonville. And so, then, so we kind of pre-marketed the bonds, so to speak,” he explained.

Truemper said the firm’s trading desk set the interest rate and customers — individuals and Arkansas banks — were called. The customers chose maturities and placed orders in minimum increments of $5,000, he told Traylor.

Truemper added, after Traylor asked if all the bonds had been sold, “I haven’t seen the balance at the end of the business day, but, from the standpoint of the city of Jacksonville, yes they have all been sold.”

Traylor also asked why the council was voting on the ordinance now. City Attorney Robert Bamburg answered, “The resolution that ya’ll passed about a month or six weeks ago is what authorized them to go forward and do what they’ve done so far. This authorizes the full issuance and then authorizes the mayor and (the city clerk) to sign off on the documents required for the issue to be completed. The sale actually won’t be completed. Jack gave you the date of Sept. 15.”

Traylor said he was under the impression that “the resolution was to go forward and see what the response would be, and it would come back to us on the city council to decide whether or not we were going to do an ordinance, or bond issue and how much. Evidently, that’s not the case.”

Bamburg argued that this was the process for a bond issuance.

Stephens, Inc. is the bond issue’s underwriter, with First Arkansas Bank and Trust serving as the bond trustee. The underwriter sells bonds to investors and the trustee holds onto the money, Erkel explained.

TOP STORY >> Library closing Dec. 31

Leader staff writer

Ward Mayor Art Brooke advised the Lonoke-Prairie County Regional Library System to adjust its budget in order to keep open his city’s struggling library. But, with state cuts to community libraries taking effect next year, Ward’s branch will close Dec. 31 if the city cannot come up with additional funding.

“It is easy to close a library. The challenge is to keep it open and operating,” Brooke said during the library system’s board meeting on Tuesday. The mayor said his city cannot afford to pay more.

The Lonoke-Prairie County Regional Library System lost $35,000 this year when legislators balanced the state budget by cutting $1 million in aid to libraries. The regional system has also operated on the same $1 million budget for 20 years, even as costs have increased.

Last month, Brooke requested the library board’s minutes from the regular and special meetings held over the last four years, the annual budgets for the library system for the last four years and the salaries paid by the Lonoke County Library System broken down into each library. The library system is working to fill Brooke’s request for a copy of all checks written the past four years.

“I have found lots of money. You’re not going to like my ideas. One was to close the Cabot library. That didn’t go over too good. You’re not going to do that, and I know that,” Brooke said.

He continued, “I’m looking for money to keep our library open. I’m not out to cause anyone problems. I want money so we can stay online. I told you that in the last meeting, and that hasn’t changed.

“I’ve found your total cut in budget was the $30,000 that was reported. Divide that by the five libraries, and they ought to come up with $6,000. We want to keep these libraries open to the best of our abilities. I looked through our funding to see what (the city of Ward) can do to be a contributor, also,” Brooke continued.

He said he spoke with the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District program manager Leigh Ann Pool earlier in the day. Brooke said Pool is going to try to find if there are any grants available. He asked that the grant be designated for Ward.

Brooke also said he spoke with state Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) about General Improvement Funds through the Arkansas Department of Rural Services. He said Farrer has agreed to give money that would help keep the library open.

“We have some promises of some money,” Brooke said.

The city will look at its budget for 2016. Brooke has been told it costs $62,000 a year to run the Ward library with $17,000 of that coming from the city’s budget.

The city maintains the building, covers the insurance premiums and pays the utility bills.

Brooke has said in the past that some options being considered are having the library open just three or four days a week and having two part-time people working.

Many Ward residents do not want to see the library close. Last week, a petition was started at the library to save it from closing, and 18 people had signed the petition.

Since the prospect of closing was announced, one Ward library clerk resigned to be substitute clerk at the Cabot library. Another had to take a second job at Walmart and is working fewer hours at the library. It forced the Ward library to be closed from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch.

For the first half of 2015, the Ward library had 2,344 visitors. It had 8,243 items checked out. Computers were used 396 times.

“I hope it stays open,” Ward librarian Venessa Ford said.

Ward library patron Karan Kordsmeier said she likes the Ward library because the staff is friendly and strives to help.

“When I first found out it was closing, I was upset. It is something you never thought you would lose. It is local and family orientated. The Cabot library is a huge jumble. It was hard to tell what the books were, and I didn’t have the time to look at every book,” Kordsmeier said.

She said, with a smaller library, it is easier to keep track of her children. It makes her feels safer.

“If they are having problems, why are they building a new library in Cabot? They could use that money on the old (Cabot) building to keep this one open,” Kordsmeier stated.

Cabot’s new library, though, is being paid for with a city sales tax, not with additional funding from the library system.

“It is unfair to take away the only library that Ward residents have. It is within walking distance for many. If you don’t have a vehicle, you can’t get to the library in Cabot or Beebe. It adds to the cost of gas money to drive 15 to 20 minutes instead of two minutes. Taxi fares are expensive,” Kordsmeier said.

“The library is a place to go when it is too hot to be outside,” she added.

Her son, Patrick, who is 10, said, “I like their books and the activities they have here.”

“I’m pretty sure, if there was a 1-percent tax increase in Ward for the library, a lot of people would vote yes to that,” Kordsmeier said.

“If Cabot residents can do it for a new building, Ward residents could do it to keep a library open,” she continued.

Lonoke-Prairie County Regional Library System director Deborah Moore told The Leader on Wednesday that the board came up with ways to cut expenses.

• One was to close the Ward library.

• The second was to break up the single two-county library system, which was formed 25 years ago.

• The third was to accept Cabot’s donation of $155,000 for three full-time library employees’ salaries.

The city funds the Cabot library to buy books, materials and operation costs with 0.7 mills earmarked by the city council. The $155,000 came from that funding.

• The fourth was to combine the Carlisle and Lonoke branch manager positions and have one coordinator for both libraries based in Lonoke.

• The fifth was to implement a hiring freeze next year, unless filling a vacancy, and offer no salary or cost-of-living increases either.

TOP STORY >> Austin, Ward populations are growing

Leader senior staff writer

Growth in Austin and Ward has outpaced neighboring towns since 2010, while Cabot growth has slowed considerably and Jacksonville continued to lag behind, but Mayor Gary Fletcher says that’s about to change.

While Austin’s growth rate between 2010 and 2015 was 25.6 percent and Ward grew by 16.4 percent, Cabot’s growth was a more modest 9.5 percent and Jacksonville languished at 1.5 percent, according to Metro Trends Demographic Review and Outlook, published annually by Metroplan, with demographer Jonathan Lupton at the helm.


The key to Austin’s fast-paced growth from 2,038 to 2,560 during that time?

“It’s quiet up here,” Mayor Bernie Chamberlain said, adding that the city has easy access to highways and that a number of excellent subdivisions are being developed.

She said the city is thinking about asking for a special census to document the growth and qualify for more federal money.

While Austin grew by about 520 during that period, the growth in Jacksonville, a city almost 15 times larger, was only 432 people.

“The past is the past, but the future…we’re quite excited,” Fletcher said.

Among area central Arkansas towns, only Wrightsville (1 percent), England (-1.7 percent), Carlisle (-0.7 percent) and Cammack Village (-2 percent) had less growth than Jacksonville or lost population.

Lonoke added 140 people and grew 3.3 percent.


Growth slowed in Cabot, which grew by about 4,500 people between 2000-2005 but by only about half that from 2010-2015.

Fletcher said Jacksonville, with a history of old and poor schools, mired in a decades-old court desegregation suit, is less than a year from running its own school district, and he believes that will make all the difference.

“That’s why, for almost 30 years, we’ve tried to get our own school district, and 95 percent of voters approved that idea,” Fletcher said. “Now the community will be able to set standards that will draw young families.”

The new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District will be completely free of the Pulaski County Special School District and ready to start classes after July 1, 2016 — less than a year off.


Already, there are plans for a new elementary school and a new high school.

Fletcher said Jacksonville is also poised for commercial growth along the Hwy. 67/167 corridor bisecting downtown. Prime development property includes the old Jacksonville Boys and Girls Middle Schools, on a rise near, and visible from, the highway.

“I’ve sat here all these years, knowing others were growing, and we weren’t,” said Fletcher. “We’re not there, but we can see it.”

The rate of growth in Lonoke County declined from 3 percent in 1990-2000, to 2.6 percent from 2000-2010 to .09 percent from 2010-2015.

Only Pulaski County grew steadily during that time, but only by fractions of a percent. Faulkner County growth declined from 3.7 percent to 2.8 percent to 1.5 percent during that same period.


Little Rock experienced the most growth between 2010 and 2015, about 6,000 people, followed by Conway with about 5,300 and North Little Rock with 4,100. North Little Rock experienced the greatest turnaround from the 2000-2005 population, which actually decreased by 1,000.

Cabot, Maumelle and Sherwood all grew by less in 2010-2015 than in the 2000-2005 period.

Cabot’s population is now 26,040, Maumelle’s is 18,488, and Sherwood finally slipped over the 30,000 barrier with 30,725.

Jacksonville’s current population is 28,796.

Compared to 2000, the poverty rate increased in 2009-2013 in all the larger towns and cities in central Arkansas. North Little Rock had the highest poverty rate, 21.9 percent, followed by Little Rock at 18.6 percent and Jacksonville at 17.3 percent.

Cabot had a 12.7 percent poverty rate, Sherwood was 11.3 percent, and Maumelle was 5.1 percent.


In 2013, Arkansas had the fourth highest poverty rate in the nation.

Towns seem to be discouraging construction of multi-family housing units, which some see as leading to a greater population of poor or minority tenants.

In 2014, the last year for which there is complete data, Jacksonville issued building permits for 28 homes, the lowest in at least four years, while they issued permits for 12 units of multi-family housing.

Nearly two thirds of housing permits in the four-county region were for single-family units.


One problem for growth and economic development is the deterioration of roads, according to Metro Trends.

Budgetary restraints and other priorities, in combination with shrinking road and highway revenues from the federal government, have contributed to the poor conditions of so many roads.

And, when developers build roads into and through their new subdivisions, at completion, they are deeded to city or county governments, which are faced with the problem of maintaining more road with less money, Lupton said. Each new subdivision also requires more water and sewer from local utilities.

Some cities, such as Conway and Bryant, now require impact fees from developers — money to help offset the increased cost of maintenance, fire and police protection and water and sewer.

SPORTS STORY >> Technique is the focus early on for Jackrabbits

Leader sportswriter

After what’s been a busy summer, the Lonoke Jackrabbits began fall practice this week, and even though it’s the first week, head Jackrabbit Doug Bost is pleased overall with what he’s seen from his group.

“It’s been good,” said Bost. “Monday and Tuesday the energy was real good. (Wednesday) I think their legs kind of got to them. We’ve been doing a lot of running the first two days, but overall, the energy’s been good, the effort’s been good, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

With full contact not allowed until teams get five fall practices in, the Jackrabbits spent this week working mostly on conditioning and technique.

“Just coaching up a lot of technique,” Bost said. “Just the little things that you don’t have to go full contact on. We’ve been spending a lot of time, individually, working on technique stuff.

“We want to get good at our technique. On defense, are we getting our reads, and on offense, are we executing? This is the perfect time to work on all of that.”

Some teams spend the first week of practices working more on one side of the ball or one area of concern than another, but Bost said his practices have been well balanced in all three aspects of the game – offense, defense and special teams.

“It’s been an hour of defense, an hour of offense, and we put in one for special teams each day,” Bost said. “We feel good about offense and defense.

“We’ve pretty much covered everything, it’s just going over it and getting a lot of reps on it, and then special teams, it’s implementing a new one each day. I’m real proud of how we’ve progressed this week.”

Bost’s numbers this year are typical for Lonoke. The head Jackrabbit said he’ll probably have right at 45 players by the time fall practice sessions are all said and done.

“We had some drop off,” Bost said, “but I’d say it’s been pretty consistent over the last seven years of somewhere between 40 and 45. It’s my biggest senior class since ’09. I’ve got 15 seniors and that’s great when you have that many seniors.”

The Jackrabbits have had a busy summer with several 7-on-7 camps they’ve attended, as well as the summer workouts required by Bost and his staff. That extra work has led to a smoother transition to fall practice, according to Bost.

“I remember back in the early days when you didn’t do a whole lot in the summer, and when you came back you started from square one,” Bost said. “I mean, this is the cadence, this is your stance, this is your play – all that you do year-round now, so you don’t have to do all that anymore.”

Offensively, the Rabbits have plenty of experience at the skill positions, but not on the line. Bost said this year’s group of linemen will be small compared to years past, but he said he does like the progress that group has made in the first few days of fall practices.

“On the offensive line, it’s no secret,” Bost said, “we will be the smallest team every Friday night. We’ve told our kids that. Our offensive line is going to average 210 pounds, and everybody else is 250, 260.”

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Bear volleyball replacing six seniors

Leader sports editor

The Sylvan Hills volleyball team will be almost entirely different from last season. The Lady Bears lost six seniors, all of who played most of the rotations, from last year’s 5A-Central third-place team. Sylvan Hills coach Harold Treadway took the team to a camp last week at Greenbrier, and learned that the new group has a lot of work to do.

“It went about like I expected it to go,” Treadway said of the team camp. “The camp was divided up with junior varsity teams going in the morning and varsity in the afternoon. The sophomores, once they got over the jitters, they did pretty good. The juniors and seniors are still trying to figure out who’s who and where’s where.”

Lack of team chemistry is not an uncommon thing for teams this early in the preseason process, but Sylvan Hills has the added work of assimilating six new players who transferred from North Pulaski.

“We have four on the varsity from North Pulaski and they’re doing a good job,” Treadway said. “I’m glad they’re here. The ones I’ve had have done a good job of helping them blend in and making them welcome. We haven’t had any problems with that so far. And the new ones seem to be enjoying their move over and enjoy playing here.”

The first official day of preseason was Monday, and the Lady Bears started it sooner than probably anyone else in the state. Sylvan Hills started at 12:01 a.m. and practiced for three hours.

“It’s something I started a couple of years ago,” Treadway said. “Something different. It’s a lock-in type situation – kind of a bonding thing. It’s something I really felt like we needed this year with all the news kids coming in. It went really well.

“We bring them in about 9 o’clock that night. We have pizza and cheese dip and sodas. We do some fun activities. Then at 12:01 we start and we go for three hours.”

Despite the all the transfers, Sylvan Hills has only two seniors and both were on the team last year. Ashley Beach and Taylor Yeoman figure heavily into Treadway’s plans, but he’s still trying to figure out what his rotations and substitutions will look like.

“We’re not settled on a starting lineup,” Treadway said. “We’re still trying to figure out who can play front line, who can play back row and who, if anyone, can go all the way around?

“I don’t know if I’m going to move any sophomores up to varsity. I don’t typically like to do that unless it’s just an exceptional athlete. But it may be a situation where I have to. I just don’t know right now. But we’re getting close.”

SPORTS STORY >> Devils figuring out depth chart

Leader sports editor

Numbers haven’t been what was expected back when as many as 83 turned out for spring practice, but the Jacksonville football team has been able to establish some depth with the 50 to 55 players who have taken part in the first official week of preseason drills.

A key reason for that achievement is the 20 seniors who are leading the way for the Red Devils this season.

“We’ve got a big senior class so we hope to have a little more leadership on the field,” said Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham. “I think we’ve established a pretty good idea of our depth chart. We know pretty much who can help us and where they’re going to be most affective.”

Since teams are not allowed to practice in full pads until the sixth practice, coaches find other ways to determine who’s standing out and earning those starting spots.

“We’re looking at technique mostly,” Hickingbotham said. “We’re looking at the guys who are doing things right and we’re looking at who’s playing fast. If you’re not sure of what you’re doing, you’re going to hesitate and you’re not going to go full speed. And of course we’re looking at the ones who are giving effort and working hard every day.”

Hickingbotham, who is also the offensive coordinator, has his quarterbacks signaling plays from the sidelines during team drills. He has been impressed with both his senior and junior quarterbacks, Brandon Hickingbotham and Rowdy Weathers, and their understanding of the system.

“That’s something we’re going to try the first three games,” Hickingbotham said. “First and foremost just from a learning standpoint to help them understand what we’re doing. But we’re going to play both of those guys early. It’s a big plus to have to two guys that study and understand things the way they do.”

The bad news has been the inconsistency in participation. On Thursday, about 54 players were present with 47 dressed out. Friday morning’s practice was about the same in numbers, but not the same in personnel. Four projected starters were not at practice Friday morning.

“It’s a different 50 today, and that’s a little discouraging,” Hickingbotham said. “But I’m excited about the ones who are here every day giving it 100 percent.”

The lack of daily participation became an issue on the first day of preseason. The head Red Devil says there will be make-up work involved for any missed practice time, and thinks that will be the main reason numbers don’t climb much higher than they are now.

“We’re going to hold people accountable around here. About 50 is probably about where we’re going to wind up. We’ll see for sure when people start trickling in here and find out what it’s going to take to be held accountable.”

SPORTS STORY >> Numbers up, Sylvan Hills ‘booming’

Leader sportswriter

Despite graduating 23 seniors from last year’s 8-3 team, the Sylvan Hills football team began fall practices this week with higher numbers than in years past.

Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow said he’s got 72 players currently on his roster, and about 65 of those players went through the first week of fall practice.

Withrow said he’s had a small portion of players miss practices this week because of work, church camp or the simple fact that they took to the field at 6:30 a.m. throughout the week. But, by the time it’s all said and done, Withrow said he expects his roster to stay in the 70s.

“I think we’re going to be in the 70s,” said Withrow, “and in the future, I think that’s the way we’re going to go. We’re booming right now. We’re doing a lot with the kids. I like our coaches. I like what we’re doing.

“We’ve got administrators that are very much pro-athletics. We’ve got the new turf field. So we’re doing a lot of things to try and take our program to the next level.”

The Bears are coming off another busy summer of 7-on-7 meets and team camps that include the numerous individual workouts Withrow and his staff require the players to take part in throughout the summer.

With the first week of fall practices being limited to non-contact, practices have been in many ways an extension of the team’s summer activities.

“Right now they’ve kind of restricted things as far as how we can practice,” Withrow said. “It’s what we’ve been doing all summer, anyway. We’ve been out there all summer. We’ve had three workouts a week all summer.

“We’ve already been lifting and we’ve already been running plays. It’s not like we haven’t been doing stuff, so this is really kind of an extension of what we’ve been doing. It’s probably a little bit faster pace and is a little bit longer, but it’s gone well.

“We knew after the team camps we had to clean some stuff up and get better, so we’re doing that and trying to fit some guys in some spots where they can help us out.”

Even though the Bears have 72 players, the 23 seniors that graduated from last year’s team left with a lot of experience. That’s left Withrow and his staff working to fill some of the spots left by last year’s seniors, and it’s been at almost every position.

“It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one (area), because we only have three returning starters on offense and one of them is Jordan (Washington),” Withrow said. “Jordan was just a receiver last year and now he’s the quarterback.

“We return four on defense. The defensive line is all new. The secondary is three of the four. Our inside linebackers, both of those are new. Offensively, we have two linemen and Jordan and then everybody else is new.

“They’re young, but they’re athletic. So we’re going to get better and we’re going to get better every week. Our deal is we’re trying to speed up the process. I’ve been impressed with our effort. Our effort’s been good. Our attitudes have been good on both sides of the ball.

“I think we’re on schedule. The one thing I’d like to get is better execution and to be playing at a good tempo and a good pace. That’s the one thing we haven’t been able to do, especially at team camps. Now we’re getting to do that. We just have to adjust to the pace that we want to be at.”

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Alimony check from PCSSD

An agreement reached Monday between the new Jacksonville school district and the Pulaski County Special School District is a bargain by any measure and should secure the city’s fledgling school system while it gets its footing.

The deal calls for the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District to pay PCSSD $10.8 million for nine mostly dilapidated campuses and a bus depot, but lots of land and schoolhouses nonetheless. JNP will receive about $11 million in federal desegregation money, which will soon be phased out for all central Arkansas districts, and it will also get $4.5 million in separation money.

It’s a divorce worth bragging about considering many Jacksonville residents would have been willing to pay PCSSD for their freedom. The payout won’t be enough to build a new school or compensate the community that has been bilked by Dixon Road bureaucrats for decades. But the arrangement will be enough to set the Jacksonville district on a path to achieve all of the goals it has set for itself, like building new campuses and improving education standards.

The agreement will also provide JNP with enough funding to fight any lawsuits that it can be certain will be filed by John Walker, the civil rights attorney who for years sued PCSSD for inequitable treatment of black students. He’s already explained to U.S. District Judge Price Marshall what he says are major concerns about the Jacksonville district’s efforts to provide quality education to all of its students.

Walker’s condemnations of the new district are premature, but he is a force to be reckoned with. School board representatives should invite him to tour all of the campuses to see the havoc caused by PCSSD’s incompetence and neglect. He will see that rebuilding won’t be easy and that it will take several years.

Jerry Guess, interim superintendent of PCSSD, deserves praise for compensating Jacksonville as best he could. When he was appointed by the state to sort out PCSSD’s financial and academic problems, he had the courage to see that Jacksonville’s schools were in such bad shape that PCSSD couldn’t afford to make the necessary improvements because it would simply cost too much money.

Say what you will about him, but no other PCSSD superintendent ever supported Jacksonville’s effort to break away. The others always chose to continue the ignore-and-neglect strategy instead of doing the hard work of addressing what Jacksonville needed — at least three new schools and millions more in repairs.

Indeed, Jacksonville owes Guess a lot. It’s not likely the new district could have gotten more out of the deal or would have ever been released from PCSSD without his approval.

Jacksonville schools will be fully independent on July 1, 2016. That’s something to look forward to and an important factor to keep in mind when school board elections are held on Sept. 16.

There are three competitive races: Ron McDaniel vs. Celeste Williams, Richard Moss vs. Marcia Dornblaser, and a three-way race with Jim Moore, Jerry Reichenbach and Barry Roper.

Four other races are uncontested: Board President Daniel Gray is running for the at-large Position 1 seat; board secretary Carol Denise Miles is seeking the Zone 2 spot; board member LaConda Watson is after the Zone 4 seat; and Dena Toney is unopposed for the Zone 5 seat.

The candidates should steer clear of the divisiveness of the past. Positivity should be embraced as should open discussions about where schools should be built, how to pay for them, whether a millage increase is needed and what the new high school’s mascot should be.

The school board election should be treated as a new beginning of Jacksonville’s civic life as well as for its schools.

The Jacksonville detachment is a win-win situation. It will allow Jacksonville to build new schools with the state covering half the cost. It also lets PCSSD concentrate its resources on improving or replacing fewer schools.

Good school buildings are probably the most difficult hurdle to achieving unitary status, and both districts will continue to answer to the federal courts until they provide the same quality of education for all of their students.

The Jacksonville detachment, because of the opportunity to improve all facilities faster, is the keystone to solving the desegregation conundrum.

Jacksonville Superintendent Tony Wood told the school board Monday he plans to hire an architect and a construction firm to begin the rebuilding process right away.

This new district is taking shape fast.

TOP STORY >> Beebe mural unites community

Melba Brackin, who helped organize the painting of this mural on Main Street in Beebe, stands in front of the masterpiece that honors soldiers with artist Thomas Fernandez, an instructor at ASU-Beebe.


Special to The Leader

The interest in Beebe’s first mural has been overwhelming.

The July weather couldn’t have been hotter as Thomas Fernandez, an art instructor at ASU-Beebe, began transforming the west wall of the Wilbur Mills Co-op building on Main Street into a military mural called “Brothers and Sisters.”

The simplicity of the mural as a silhouette is very striking. It depicts service members from all wars and conflicts — from the Doughboys and Yeomanettes of World War I to the modern soldier — and represents all four branches of the military.

The soldiers’ images blend into the USS Arkansas battleship, while a C-130 flies overhead near a soldier carrying the American flag.

People in the community, including schoolchildren and their parents, began to come to give a word of thanks and encouragement as the project unfolded. Some visited with artists Bill and Tina Song and Toni Spradlin, a business instructor at ASU-Beebe, who brought her niece and nephew.

“These three artists have worked full time from day one. We took off only during some of the extremely hot hours of the day. As it got hotter, we started earlier in the mornings and worked until about 2 p.m., coming back later, working as late as we could,” Fernandez said.

One veteran who came to look at the mural said, “It reminds me of myself when I was in the service and the different military people I came to know. I’ve been there; I know that person — they’re my brothers and sisters.”

When Fernandez heard the remark, he immediately had the title for the mural.

Fernandez and I thank everyone who contributed to the success of the mural, the city of Beebe for being the sponsor, the chamber of commerce for providing the awning, food and water, First Security Bank and Union Valley Baptist Church.

“We couldn’t have done any of this without Horance Taylor. The city brought in a crane and he operated it. He came in the evening after work,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez came to ASU-Beebe from Arkadelphia in the fall of 2012, when Bill Long retired. The next time he paints another mural, it won’t be in July.

(Editor’s note: Melba Brackin helped organize the painting of Beebe’s mural on Main Street.)

TOP STORY >> Panel picks Sherwood library site

Leader staff writer

A Sherwood committee voted 6-1 Thursday to recommend 21 acres at the intersection of Oakbrooke Drive and East Woodruff Avenue as the future home of a new $6 million library.

The city council will vote on whether to give final approval of the site at its Aug. 24 meeting.

The land is priced at $496,000 — less than half the $1 million budget for that part of the project.

The wooded property is behind the Miller’s Crossing subdivision on Hwy. 107. It’s between there and where Oakbrooke Drive, traveling from Kiehl Avenue, comes to a dead end.

The site is north of East Maryland Avenue, and south of Hwy. 107.

Committee Chairwoman Lupe Pena-Valadez said that location was chosen for its cost, flexibility and potential for natural features, like walking trails.

She added that the committee wants the “integrity of the community” to remain and for the architects to be “respectful” of nearby homes.

The library is being constructed with a temporary 1.3-mill increase — about $39 in annual property taxes for the owners of $150,000 houses — voters approved in November.

The price of the recommended site will drop even more because four lots offered that aren’t contiguous won’t be needed, committee member and Alderman Ken Keplinger added.

The committee agreed, too, that a public meeting should be held once a preliminary design for the library is completed.

Also, some of the savings from purchasing land for less than the budgeted $1 million will go toward connecting the two pieces of Oakbrooke Drive, which has long been part of the city’s master street plan.

There was some discussion about putting a fire station on two or three lots of the property in the future, but library bond money can’t be used for anything but what is needed for the library.

Steve Grisham of Taggart Architects told the group before it voted that the chosen site was his top pick, noting that his firm didn’t consider the price tag.

“To us, after walking it, it’s a pretty good site…There’s a lot more potential for growth there.”

Mayor Virginia Young, after the meeting, said the site presented an “opportunity” to build a library with park-like features, such as an outdoor amphitheater.

Multiple entrances, a retention pond to help with drainage, a gate and lighting to discourage vandalism were also discussed at the meeting.

Keplinger said integrating the building with its natural surroundings would make it “not just a library. It’s a destination.”

The committee looked at 13 choices, but had narrowed those down to four by the beginning of its meeting last week.

Then, when none of the members voiced support for two of the four sites, the two remaining were formally voted on.

Keplinger was the one dissenting vote, as he favored a 5.25-acre site closer to the city’s municipal complex and behind the Bill Harmon Recreation Center. It was also behind First Christian Church on Kiehl Avenue.

But, the alderman said after the vote, the chosen site was a good deal.

That’s because the 5.25 acres were appraised at $600,000.

About the runner-up, Grisham noted, “It does have some terrain to deal with, but all these sites have that. The main objections we had are it’s just not really central to future growth.

“It’s kind of in a dated area and doesn’t have any potential for nature trails. And the views aren’t all that great, looking at the back of the church.”

Keplinger pointed out that the chosen site is only a few blocks from the center of the most densely populated part of Sherwood, according to a study the city had done.

He also said traffic would increase from people using the new connected road as a cut-through.

Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), added, “It’s in the middle of neighborhood, surrounded by really pretty, nice homes and a future primary arterial cross street…I think you’ve got a lot of potential out there (for a) first-class facility.”

The two sites were eliminated because no one spoke for them were listed at $960,000 each for less acreage than the recommended land.

One was behind the Mapco gas station on Hwy. 107 and near Sylvan Hills Middle School.

The other was also on Hwy. 107, by the Millers Crossing subdivision.

SPORTS STORY >> Cabot senior legion takes fourth at state

Leader sports editor

The Centennial Bank senior American Legion team finished fourth in the state tournament that took place at UA-Fort Smith’s Crowder Field last week. The Bryant Black Sox repeated as state champions after beating Cabot 4-2 in the first round, but the Centennial Bank squad should have won that game. Cabot out-hit the state champs 14-8, but left 12 runners on base and managed just two runs.

That sent Cabot to the loser’s bracket, where it defeated Conway 6-5 after falling behind early. Cabot’s first run came in the fifth inning. Blake McCutchen reached base on an error in right field and advanced on a throwing error by the pitcher on a pickoff move. He then scored when Austin Null singled to center field with two outs.

The sixth inning went much like Cabot’s entire game against Bryant. Five batters went to the plate and four got base hits, but only scored two runs.

Dylan Bowers led off with a single but was caught off the base paths and thrown out on a 2-5-6 play after Lee Sullivan’s single. Brett Brockinton struck out for the second out. Logan Kirkendoll then doubled to score Sullivan. Kirkendoll then scored on a single by Gavin Tillery, but Tillery was caught stealing to end the inning.

Cabot, 16-14, still trailed 5-3 going into the eighth inning when a Conway pitching change spelled doom for the Cougars. After Null struck out to start the eighth, Bowers, Sullivan and Brockinton drew consecutive walks. Kirkendoll picked up another RBI with a sacrifice fly to right field. Tillery then drove in the tying and winning runs with a base hit to right field.

Tillery went 2 for 4 with two RBIs and was also the winning pitcher. He threw eight innings for the win, while Logan Gilbertson held Conway scoreless in the ninth inning to earn the save.

Cabot faced Russellville on Sunday in another elimination game, and came away with a 5-4 victory on the strength of nine base hits. Brockinton, Kirkendoll and Braden Jarnagin each had two hits while those three plus Bowers and Tillery drove in one run apiece.

Gilbertson threw the first six innings, but Michael Shepherd got the win by holding Russellville scoreless over the last three as Cabot mounted its comeback.

That eliminated Russellville and sent Cabot to the semifinals against Texarkana. The Tigers held Cabot to just four hits and earned a 7-3 victory.

Cabot’s first run came in the first inning when a single by Sullivan was followed by a Texarkana error. Trailing 7-1, Cabot put together a minor rally in the eighth, but it wasn’t enough. Bowers and Sullivan each got one-out base hits. Bowers scored on Sullivan’s hit, and Sullivan scored on a wild pitch.

TOP STORY >> Red Devils’ retreat teaches team unity

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville football Red Devils spent their last week before preseason practice officially begins at their second-annual team retreat to Williams Baptist College in Walnut Ridge.

The team spent a good portion of its time at the retreat practicing, but the main goal was to bond as a team and work on teamwork and unity.

Coaches confiscate cell phones as the players exit the bus upon arrival for the three-day event. Dorm rooms are assigned by position, but coaches also take care to assign rooms strategically.

“We didn’t put people in a room with their best friends,” said Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham. “We tried to mix it up and give these kids a chance to spend some time with somebody they haven’t necessarily spent a lot of time with. And when you see that pay off, that’s when you know you’ve got something good going. You see kids eating and talking with kids you’ve never seen together before. That’s the kind of thing this is all about. We want to build that bond and build these relationships.”

Hickingbotham recalls one specific incident during room checks that he felt exemplified their goals.

“I opened up a door and it was like a clown car at the circus,” Hickingbotham said. “You couldn’t fit anybody else in there. Just 14 or 15 of them in that little dorm room, and just sitting there talking. All 15 of them engaged with each other instead of sitting there ignoring each other looking at their cell phone.”

Practices consisted of some 7-on-7 competitions and some short workouts. Coaches worked a lot on fundamentals like catching and tucking. Linemen worked on blocking and tackling technique.

Coaches also put together several non-athletic competitions in which players were divided into teams. And just as last year, there was also a talent show. According to players, the impersonations of coaches were the favorite talent displays.

Tim Hammond’s impression of new coach Bobby Gentry was a particular favorite.

One thing that came out of the first camp was the emergence of a new player or two that suddenly shined in the different environment. This year didn’t lack impressive performances either.

Coaches all singled out senior Damien Smith as having an exceptional camp. Other coaches who worked with certain positions mentioned Stevie Eskridge and Jonathan Hall.

Eskridge himself was impressed with a newcomer.

“Danny Smith really surprised me,” Eskridge said of the sophomore running back transfer from Vilonia. “To me, he stood out and really showed what he’s capable of and what he’s going to bring to the team. He looked really strong.”

Eskridge is a player coaches have bragged on in the past for being the type of player who will do whatever is asked. He will be relied upon as a multi-position player this year, and he fully understands the goals of the retreat, having now been through two of them.

“We do come together as a team,” Eskridge said. “We work on making that bond. It’s something we do intentionally, so we know later in the season that we can depend on each other.”

Malcolm Crudup, a senior who missed the entire conference season last year after suffering a deep thigh bruise and a torn meniscus, is also one of the players coaches are excited about. He also zeroed in quickly on what the camp was meant to accomplish.

“I think it went even better than last year,” said Crudup. “I feel like we became more of having a sense of brotherhood than anything else. If we can build that sense of brotherhood and family, then we can accomplish more on Friday nights than we could as a bunch of individuals.”

Some of the excitement from the retreat diminished Monday, when players were supposed to report to the first official day of preseason practices. Of the 68 that participated in summer workouts, 18 didn’t show on Monday.

“We’ve got 50 out here and that’s a little disappointing,” Hickingbotham said. “Several guys told me and we knew about it and we know where they are. I can handle that. But some of them we don’t have a clue. We were expecting them to be here. I got a problem with that.

“We’re going to hold people accountable around here. About 50 is probably about where we’re going to wind up. We’ll see for sure when people start trickling in here and find out what it’s going to take to be held accountable.”

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers get new halfback, loses two TE’s

Leader sports editor

The Cabot Panther football team opened official preseason practices Monday morning with a lineup slightly different than the one that went through spring drills. Two projected starting tight ends are no longer with the team, one with injuries and another for missing summer workouts, while another ball carrier recently joined the team.

Alex Roberts, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound speedster has impressed the Panther coaches since arriving via military transfer from Alaska.

“We haven’t timed him yet,” said Cabot coach Mike Malham. “He says he ran a 4.4 40 and an 11.2 100-meter dash up in Alaska. And from watching him out here, I kind of believe him. He’s not very big but he’s extremely quick and he’s pretty strong. He’s looked good so far.”

Roberts joins a crew of offensive backs Malham was already excited about. Kolton Eads returns at fullback after running for more than 1,200 yards last season. Starting quarterback Jarrod Barnes “has the potential to be the best one we’ve ever had here,” according to Malham. The head Panther has also been impressed with sophomore Adam Flores, and expects to line him up at halfback and fullback. He also likes the speed and determined running of halfback Braxton Burton, despite his small stature, as well as David Morse.

The Panthers, as all other teams, can only practice once per day for the first week, instead of the two-a-day practices that were the norm until a couple of years ago. Teams also cannot practice in full pads until the sixth day, which for Cabot, will be Saturday.

“You have to have five practices before you go in full pads,” Malham said. “So if you don’t go Saturday, you have to wait until Monday.”

Malham also joked about the weather on day one.

“It’s too cool out here,” Malham said. “There’s no humidity. There’s a nice breeze blowing. We’ll never get them into shape like this, only going once a day.”

As usual for non-pad practices, the Panthers lifted early then broke into groups for position-specific drills. Offensive linemen worked a lot on footwork. Defensive linemen practice coming off the ball and slipping blockers. Linebackers spent a large portion of its practice on recognizing alignments and passing routes. Offensive backs worked a lot on route running and catching and tucking passes. Defensive backs worked on footwork and different coverages before closing with tip drills.

The Panthers have three weeks of practices before the Red-White game that’s scheduled for Friday, Aug. 21.