Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

TOP STORY >> Old school inadequate, air base informs district

Leader staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District doesn’t believe the $200,000 it gets annually from the Air Force needs to be used to fix or replace the temporary school the district has been using on the base for more than 40 years.

“There’s no rule that says we have to give that slice of the financial pie to Arnold Drive Elementary,” said PCSSD Superintendent James Sharpe. “We put it in the general fund and use it where it is needed most.”

Sharpe made the statement Friday afternoon as he and PCSSD board members toured Arnold Drive Elementary School.
Brig. Gen. Kip Self, commander at Little Rock Air Force Base gave members of the district board of education a tour of the school in hopes the district and the base can improve the future of the school either with renovations or a new building.
Built in 1963 as a temporary measure to alleviate overcrowding at nearby Tolleson Elementary, Arnold Drive Elementary suffers from the same woes as other aging schools throughout the district, except it is made out of sheet metal, which puts it more at risk during storm season.

“If there was a tornado, this building would be the first to go,” said Lt. Col. Markus Henneke, commander of the 314th Civil Engineering Squadron.

If there is a tornado warning, teachers usher the school’s 312 students into the hallway, where extra equipment is stored because there’s no room in the classes and offices. There is no sprinkler system in the 32,652-square-foot building.
“The most important part of school is not the brick and mortar, it is the people and the ambiance, such as nurturing and caring,” said superintendent Sharpe.

Despite the school’s location on the base, PCSSD is responsible for the school’s operation and budget.

The district receives about $200,000 a year in federal impact aid for students of military members. Since many military families are exempt from paying local taxes because they live on federal land but send their children to public schools, impact aid compensates the district for loss of tax revenue.

Some parents have complained that the district should use the federal impact aid to repair Arnold Drive Elementary.
“Airmen and their families need the support of the community in order to focus on the mission,” Self said. “If you are status quo, you’ll fall behind every time.”

As board members walked through the building, principal Jackie Smith pointed out floors, walls and ceilings in various states of damage from leaks in the roof, as well as damp textbooks damaged by leaking water, drying out on tables.

The school has safety issues outside as well. Arnold Drive is a main artery of base travel, so as traffic gets congested in the morning and afternoon, children will often cross the bus lane, through the parking lot and out to the street to meet their parents.

Airmen volunteer as crossing guards, but Self says the potential for an accident isn’t going away.

The student population at the school is expected to increase as families move into the 1,200 new and renovated privatized homes on base over the next five years.

Another worry for school administrators is no fence between the playground and Arnold Drive. On the playground itself, each piece of metal playground equipment is nested in a bed of pea gravel framed by splintery wooden rails.

“I wouldn’t want to fall into that , would you?” asked Debra Shelwood, a parent with three students at Arnold Drive Elementary.

She said she’s writing to Ty Pennington, the host of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” for help with the school.
“Do you put a $150, 000 roof on this building or make plans to construct a new school in the middle of one of the base neighborhoods? I don’t know the answer to that. You (PCSSD board members) do,” Self said.

“Nationally, schools are fairly old to very old. It’s frustrating ,but it just takes time,” said Pam Roberts, president of the PCSSD Board of Education.