Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

TOP STORY >>Jacksonville may get its own school district

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville could have its own school district as early as the 2008-2009 school year, according to a local legislator who said bills to ease the way are being drafted. But nothing is guaranteed.

Two separate legislative committees are drafting bills that could release all three school district partners from the terms of the $58 million-a-year desegregation agreement and could clear the way for a separate Jacksonville school district, while assuring the continued existence of the Pulaski County Special School District, according to state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville.

PCSSD, North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts are bound by the terms of the existing desegregation agreement.
“Our intent is to have a bill ready for consideration when the new General Assembly convenes in January,” Bond said. Bond, a member of the Desegregation Litigation Oversight subcommittee, said proponents of a Jacksonville district are using as a roadmap the elements of U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson’s ruling in summer 2004, which prevented Jacksonville from voting to form its own district.

One of Wilson’s findings was that the state must first conduct a feasibility study to assure the court that changing district boundaries and creating a new district would not harm the area’s desegregation efforts. That’s why Bond put special language in the state Education Department budget last year requiring the feasibility study.

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 Gordon Associates’ study concluded that the three existing districts should each petition for unitary school status and release from the desegregation agreement, and that Jacksonville should form the fourth district.
The nearly yearlong study recommended that Jacksonville should have its own district, consisting of 13 schools that are currently in the PCSSD.
Jacksonville has tried at least twice since the mid-70s to form its own school district. The consultants said a Jacksonville district would be “more likely to address the educational needs of students attending schools north of the Arkansas River.”
In looking at a Jacksonville school district, the consultants said that the district would have a student population of slightly more than 6,900 students, of which 55 percent would be white, 40 percent black and 5 percent other minorities.

Five of the 13 county schools to be moved to the new district were in “need of extensive renovation or replacement.” The new district would have nearly 500 teachers and would need 26 building administrators and a central office of 19 to 27 administrators.

Critics of the plan say ending the desegregation agreement wouldn’t result in saving the state much of the $58 million it chips in to help the desegregation efforts, Bond said, but he noted that Don Stewart, deputy commissioner of the state Education Department, says the savings would be about $48 million.

“I don’t know if this will overcome (Judge Wilson’s) objections,” Bond said. “I know that the experts have recommended that Jackson-ville school district be created. I know we need new facilities and our kids are being shorted by the PCSSD. Gordon found five schools in the district needed immediate replacement, and four of those were in the Jacksonville area.”

Bond said the legislature should consider retaining Gordon group again to evaluate and testify that all districts are unitary.
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: Jacksonville and a district south of the Arkansas River. Gordon Associates recommended four districts—the three in existence plus Jacksonville.

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.