Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

TOP STORY >> Tax base small for separate districts

Leader staff writer

There may not be sufficient tax revenue north of the Arkansas River to support separate school districts for both Jacksonville and North Little Rock, a consultant hired to sort out Pulaski County’s public school mess told a meeting of county mayors and the county judge Tuesday.

Thanks to special language inserted into the state Education Department’s budget by state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jack-sonville, the state has hired William Gordon Associates of Saluda, N.C., for $244,120 to study realignment of public school districts in Pulaski County, which are inextricably joined by a 20-year-old school de-segregation agreement.

Meeting with mayors Tommy Swaim of Jack-sonville, Burch Johnson of Maumelle, Pat Hayes of North Little Rock, and Jim Daily of Little Rock and with County Judge Buddy Villines, Gordon Tuesday morning said it was too early to know what his group would recommend, but he eliminated the idea of one district for the entire county.

Gordon said that the desegregation agreement was the gorilla in the room when considering best ways to realign school districts in the county.

Gordon said that the Little Rock School District had met most of the requirements to be released by Judge Bill Wilson from the agreement, but that releasing one district before the others would throw the desegregation case “into chaos.”

“The desegregation agreement is a can of worms,” said Gordon. “You have three systems in different stages of unitary status.”

Gordon said he was surprised that neither the North Little Rock District nor the Pulaski County Special School District had filed for unitary school status to either get released from the agreement or find out what additional work they needed to do first.

“I’m not convinced that desegregation is improving the quality of education,” said Swaim.

Swaim disputed the notion that people in his area would not support a millage increase to support the schools.
“PCSSD has never shown us we could get enough benefit,” he said.

But he noted that Jacksonville-area residents have approved several bond issues and tax increases in the past few years, after they were shown how they would benefit—taxes for a new library, to promote tourism and for the military museum, for instance.

Gordon agreed that there did seem to be a disparity, with PCSSD schools south of the river in better condition than north of the river.

“Jacksonville High School needs help,” he said.

Jacksonville has been working toward its own school district since 1976 and Swaim said they had commissioned an extensive study and that they were “very confident we’ll have sufficient funds.”

Hays said that if the county’s schools were eventually reconfigured into two districts, one north of the river, one south, the north district would have to be “a true merger,” not just tacking Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle on to the existing North Little Rock District.

Rounded off, North Little Rock has 60,000 residents, which is actually less than the combined populations of Jacksonville (30,000), Sherwood (22,000) and Maumelle (15,000.)

Gordon Associates, which specializes in desegregation agreements and problems, must make recommendations to the state General Assembly by June 30 on realignment and on getting out from under federal courts’ desegregation supervision.

Hays suggested one money-saving device would be to transport students by Central Arkansas Transit Authority instead of a huge, inefficient fleet of school buses, and Gordon replied that had been done successfully in some places.

Gordon Associates will meet Wednesday night with the PCSSD board and Thursday morning with the Jacksonville Chamber of Com-merce Education Committee, which includes some of the activists trying for a stand-alone district.

Gordon said he and his associates needed more travel money to continue the rest of their study. He expects to return to Pulaski County twice in April, once in May and then come back in June.