Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> First school since 1970s a possibility

Attorney Gen. Mike Beebe wants to build the first new school in Jacksonville in 30 years, and he thinks he can fund it with the state’s surplus, although that’s vanishing about as fast as last decade’s federal surplus. Still, Beebe told us he’ll commit a quarter billion dollars for school-facility improvements statewide if he’s elected governor — not that either gubernatorial candidate has much choice: The state Supreme Court has told the Legislature it must replace our crumbling schools.
“It’s there,” Beebe told us, referring to the surplus. “Let’s put it to good use.”

Beebe has taken a leading role on education issues for decades, first as an influential legislator and then as attorney general.
Beebe is involved in negotiations about the future of the Pulaski County school districts now under court supervision to desegregate. They’ve been under federal supervision for so long, most white students have fled to Cabot, Beebe and elsewhere. (See article, p. 1A.)

You’d have a hard time finding two school districts side by side that are as different as Pulaski County and Cabot. One is stagnant while the other keeps growing and building shimmering new schools. Cabot School Superintendent Frank Holman did a fine job a couple of weeks ago telling patrons how much money the district has spent on textbooks this year ($1 million) and how much money it will spend to rebuild one of its junior high schools that recently burned down ($15 million).
While Cabot builds a new school every couple of years and spends millions on textbooks, people in Jacksonville are wondering why they haven’t seen a new school in their town in 30 years.

Many of them want to form their own independent district and raise enough money for new schools. But that could take years, and some Jacksonville residents are thinking about asking philanthropists to help pay for new public schools since the district says it’s too broke to build schools in the Jacksonville area (but not in other parts of the district).

Why would private donors pay for new schools? They might get their names on the school building and help kids get a better education. That’s how desperate folks are in Jacksonville. Beebe is hoping the desegregation case will be resolved and then Jacksonville might one day go out on its own and manage its own destiny like neighboring Cabot and Beebe.

(By the way, candidate Beebe, who lives in Searcy, and the town of Beebe are not related. Somebody with that name settled in the area before the attorney general’s family moved into White County.) Jacksonville needs new middle schools and a new high school, perhaps with the help of private donors who could help match state funding — although state law would have to be changed before that can happen.

Jacksonville could finally see some progress if the state, after prodding from the Arkansas Supreme Court, finally raises standards for its public schools all across the state and spends all that surplus on our kids and on school construction instead of pork.

That would also be good news for Little Rock Air Force Base, where Arnold Drive Elementary School could use some serious repairs. Sure, half of that surplus will vanish if the state eliminates the sales tax on groceries — which is why Beebe wants to do that more gradually, while Asa Hutchinson, his Republican opponent, would get rid of it right away — but while there’s a chance to help our schools, let’s not blow it after the election season is over.