Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

TOP STORY >> PCSSD’s plan causes concerns

Leader staff writer

No one seems to like the idea, but athletics, cheerleading, dance and some other extracurricular activities will become after-school activities for at least one year at Pulaski County Special School District junior high and high schools, part of the price of extricating the district from its fiscal distress.

Students, coaches and parents will just have to bite the bullet next year, Superintendent James Sharpe told district school athletic directors at a Friday meeting. Choir and band are unaffected.

“We’re planning for the worst, but hoping to do something to ease the pain,” said Sharpe Tuesday evening. “We are continually working to ease the impact.”

Parents, teachers and athletes had asked the school board to reconsider its action, but unless the district can turn around its failing finances by the end of the next school year, the state Education Commission may take extraordinary action, perhaps having the state take over the district.

The district’s fiscal-distress recovery plan, accepted by the state Department of Education, cuts about $5 million a year from expenses. Of that amount, moving the activities to after school is projected to save the district about $829,000.

Because it’s part of the official recovery plan accepted by the Ed-ucation Department, the board is powerless to reverse that action without approval and that would require cutting $829,000 from elsewhere from a budget already stripped bare, according to Julie Thompson, department spokes-man.

She said the district had inquired about changing the plan, but had not followed up, apparently resigned to the situation for now.

Sharpe told district athletic directors that he understood their frustration and the problems generated by the imposition of after-school athletics, but that nothing could be done about the problem for at least the 2006-2007 school year.

Sharpe said that if money somehow became available at the end of this fiscal year, he would try to bring those extra-curricular activities back into the school day, according to Jacksonville High School athletic director Jerry Wilson.

“We’re going to suck it up for a year,” said Wilson, “but we’re going to lose kids and we’re going to lose coaches over this.”
Thompson said Tuesday that it was possible that the school district could escape fiscal distress designation by the end of the next school year, meaning the board could put athletics, cheerleading and the other electives back into the school day without approval of the state.

The biggest problem is caused by the lack of facilities, Wilson said. Competing for after-school time and space in the gymnasiums and fields will be cheer and dance squads, ninth-grade girls and boys teams, and girls and boys teams for grades 10-12.

If one team was practicing from 4 to 5:30 p.m., one from 5:30 to 7 p.m. and yet another from 7 to 8:30 p.m., students could be at school for a long time, said Wilson. Providing supervision could be a problem, he said.
He also wondered how the late-staying students would be fed.

That’s among the problems we don’t have answers for yet, Sharpe said Tuesday.

“We’re told it’s a one-year deal,” said Denny Tipton, Sylvan Hills High School athletic director. “The bottom line is the kids.”
If the district and the schools want to improve test scores, keeping students as late as 10 p.m. before sending them home to do homework may not be the answer, he said. It is unrealistic to think teenagers would use the afternoon and evening time not spent practicing hitting the books, he added.

Tipton said that when Little Rock and North Little Rock tried after-school activities, participation dropped off. “After one year, they had to change back,” he said.

It’s also going to be tough on coaches, many of whom will get to school at 7:30 a.m. and leave after 10 p.m. He said some coaches could move on to less-demanding districts.

“Ours will be the only programs within 100 miles of Little Rock without an athletic period,” Tipton said. “That will make it hard to compete.

“Nobody’s happy,” he added. “We’re hoping that it all will be worked out.”

He joined Wilson in saying the schools and coaches would do the best job they could, remain positive and hope for the best.