Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

TOP STORY >> Base would give land for school

Leader staff writer

Brig. Gen Kip Self, Little Rock Air Force Base commander, said Monday that if the Pulaski County Special School District will pony up the money for a new school building to replace Arnold Drive Elementary, the base could donate property along Harris Road to relocate the school on the northwest side of the city.

By moving the base’s perimeter fence, the school would be accessible to both military and civilian families, Self said during an informal tour of Tolleson Elementary with PCSSD School Board member Carol Burgett.

Built on base in 1963 as a temporary measure to alleviate overcrowding at nearby Tolleson Elementary, Arnold Drive is a crowded, 32,652 square-foot metal building with a leaking roof and outdated playground equipment. All of the 300 students at Arnold Drive Elementary are from military families.

While older, Tolleson Elemen-tary is larger with 54,048 square feet and in much better shape than Arnold Drive Elementary. About 75 percent of Tolleson’s 290 students are from military families, says Tolleson principal Diane Ashen-berger, adding the school can serve up to 500 children.

“There’s a perception that Arnold Drive is a better school because it is on base, but students at both schools do well academically,” Ashenberger said.

“Quality of education has never been an issue. The issue is 40-year-old buildings and overcrowded classrooms. A new school might attract more people to the area,” Self said, citing new housing areas in Jacksonville, such as Base Meadows and Lost Creek subdivisions.

On fiscal distress for the past school year, PCSSD has been in a financial bind for several years. Burgett says once the fiscal-distress label is removed by the state, the district could receive more funding to help schools across the large district.
“This part of the district has not been growing until recently. The last capital investment in this area was Northwood Middle School in the mid-1980s,” Burgett said. She represents Arnold Drive on the base and nearby Tolleson, as well as Bayou Meto Elementary, Cato Elementary, Dupree Elementary, North Pulaski High School and Northwood Middle School.

“The district has started making a list of all the growth in the area. We know something has to be done. Steel and concrete prices have quadrupled recently, making $6 million school buildings cost $15 to 25 million,” Burgett said.

The average school in the district is probably 30 years old and in need of help or replacement. But because so much of the district’s revenues are obligated to salaries and benefits, there has been money for only two new schools in recent years—Daisy Bates Elementary and a new Maumelle Middle School.

As much as $10 million a year earmarked for capital improvement has instead been diverted—legally—into the district’s annual $134 million budget.

Arnold Drive is unique in that it is a public school located on a military base.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. military established the De-partment of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) overseas, and the Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Sec-ondary Schools (DDESS) in the U.S.

Currently, there are only a handful of DDESS schools in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Guam and Puerto Rico.