Leader Blues

Friday, June 16, 2006

TOP STORY>> Official implies city may get own district

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Jacksonville-area parents got yet another indication Thursday that a long-sought-after Jacksonville School District may be in the cards.

Consultant William Gordon Thursday stopped an inch shy of telling The Leader he would recommend creation of a standalone Jacksonville school district when he submits his report, due June 30.

Gordon said that the $244,000 study, called for by special language state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, inserted in the state Education Department Budget last year, will be turned in on time to Kenneth James.

“I am going to brief the commissioner of education on the report in draft form next week,” he said. “After some feedback from the commissioner, from Bond and (state Rep. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock) we will fine tune it,” he said.

“He’s the guy who signed our contract,” Gordon said of James. “If we’re going to shock him, we’re going to shock him privately,” Gordon said.

The proposed Jacksonville District, a goal of some area leaders for nearly 20 years, could have around 7,000 students and be among the 15 largest school districts in the state.

The state hired William Gordon Associates of Saluda, N.C. to study realignment of the three public school districts in Pulaski County–Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special– which are inextricably joined by a 20-year-old school desegregation agreement.

The consulting team looked at the feasibility of dividing up PCSSD among four districts including North Little Rock and Little Rock and two proposed districts: Jack-sonville and a district south of the Arkansas River.

There is speculation that Gordon Associates will recommend four districts—the tree in existence plus Jacksonville.

Currently, PCSSD has about 18,000 students, North Little Rock has about 12,000 and Little Rock has 24,000.

Another part of the group’s final report will be finding a way for the districts to be released from the court-ordered school desegregation agreement since each has met most or all of its conditions.

Gordon Associates is also charged with presenting a plan to get the districts off unitary school status—that is, released from the agreement and separated.

“When all is said and done a couple issues still have to be ad-dressed—(especially) the desegregation of all three districts.
“The judge has been very clear on that,” Gordon said. “He won’t do anything until all the districts are unitary.”

Gordon said there was more work to be done. “I understand that the parties are talking to one another,” he added.

Bond, the man who set the study in motion, said James is leaning toward recommending a Jacksonville school district but leaving all the others in existence, including the Pulaski County Special School District, of which Jacksonville area schools are currently a part.

“Until the final report, I don’t want to affect their final decision,” said Bond. “When we get a hard copy June 30, we’re hopeful.”

Bond said the 2008-2009 school year would be the soonest a stand-alone Jacksonville district might exist. “That’s at least a year and a half and we still have federal court issues. Plus, there may need to be some enabling legislation.”

Bond said that once it has Gordon’s report, the state Education Department could decide not to act. “The legislature will have access to the report,” he said. “I guess it could act.”

Bond said ending the desegregation agreement with Circuit Judge Bill Wilson’s approval could have statewide significance, since the state is currently required to fund the agreement to the tune of about $58 million a year.