Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

TOP STORY>> Schools to close?

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND RICKY HARVEY
Leader staff writers

Jacksonville leaders and residents rallied Tuesday morning in support of Homer Adkins, Arnold Drive, Warren Dupree, Harris and Tolleson elementary schools, which were identified among candidates for closure at a Pulaski County Special School District workshop Mon-day as the district refined its fiscal distress improvement plan.

The district has been designated by the State Department of Education as being in fiscal distress, and if it can’t recover by the end of this school year, it could be taken over by the state. That happened recently to the Helena-West Helena district. An appropriate improvement plan is considered the first step to recovery.

The district, poised to save just over $5 million in the 2005-2006 school year, proposes to save approximately $600,000 of that by closing two small elementary schools, according to acting Superintendent Robert Clowers.

The Monday workshop was intended to help the district fix shortcomings identified by the State Department of Education by including more details and setting timelines for various actions.

The administration and board have considered a wide range of cost-saving measures, some of which — like freezing teacher salaries — have been rejected by the state, resulting in a lawsuit.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, who spent most of Tuesday morning talking with concerned residents, said, “I understand the school district’s problem with finances, but I think they need to learn to manage their assets and be concerned with educating the children, which is what their main function is.”

“Closing any schools is certainly going to impact the neighborhoods that have to displace students,” Swaim said.
The State Department of Education wants to know which schools will be closed and the steps and timetable for closing them.
Of the district’s 24 elementary schools, nine have fewer than 300 students enrolled, including the five area schools, as well as College Station, Landmark, Oak Grove and Scott elementaries.

The district tried last year to close Scott, which has the lowest enrollment at 101 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, or 138 including pre-kindergarten students.

“Closing a school is a last resort,” said school board member Jeff Shaneyfelt. “But the state board is encouraging us at looking at that.”
Shaneyfelt said size wouldn’t be the only factor in deciding which schools to close.

“We need to look at transportation costs, impact on the community … a lot of things need to be looked at,” he said.
At least one inside observer considers Scott Elementary School a likely candidate for closure.
Swaim said he called the district to express his own concerns, and talked to principals to assure them that the city would do everything it could to make sure their schools aren’t closed.

The district will hold public meetings in November, prior to its decision to approve specific schools for reconfiguration and/or closure, probably at its regular December board meeting. That would allow time to notify parents or reassignment in January, open pre-registration in February and notify staff of assignments in April, before the May 1 deadline to notify teachers of non-renewal of contracts.
“I still feel very strongly that a separate school district would be to our advantage, however I acknowledge we’ve been told we can’t have that, so we’re trying to work with the system … and nothing has been successful,” Swaim said.

“Cities need to have neighborhood schools and neighborhood schools need districts to be supportive,” said Bonita Rownd, director of the Jacksonville Chamber of Com-merce. “Our city has taken continual hits with the district having to have the desegregation program, where many of our students are pooled and recruited to schools in other cities. Our shrinking enrollment is evidence that the population here doesn’t have a firm belief in what this district is doing.”

“The PCSSD is a concern for us,” Swaim said. “We’re part of that district. We wish it would be successful and I’m disappointed it isn’t. There is a lot of room for improvement and there is definitely a lack of understanding of the problems we have in Jacksonville.”
Swaim said if Jacksonville had its own school district, residents would be much more receptive to passing milages and have better parental support.

The largest of the other proposed savings are: Paying off early retirement incentive, $1 million; cutting text-book purchases, $500,000; providing its own substitute teachers, $500,000; cutting the number of assistant principals by 11, $587,668; and cutting Transportation Department cuts, $248,000.

Big tentative cuts pending legal action are eliminating paid holidays for support staff and certified ad-ministrators, $931,035, and freezing support staff salaries, $452,118.