Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TOP STORY >>Oversight could end next year for district

BY JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Superintendent James Sharpe told Jacksonville Rotary Club members Monday that the Pulaski County Special School District had remedied its financial problems and that he hoped to petition the state Education Commission in January to be released from fiscal distress designation that has brought additional state oversight.

Sharpe said he hoped the district would be removed from fiscal distress by the second semester of this year. Any Jacksonville venue is always a tough room for a PCSSD official, especially be-cause Jacksonville has worked for decades to carve its own school district from PCSSD, but Sharpe came bearing gifts—or at least the promise of one.

Sharpe said his vision would place both the boys’ and girls’ schools under the same roof where they could more easily have co-educational electives. “I want to form a focus group to study building a new Jacksonville Middle School,” he said. “We need a focus group to determine where we go from here.”

Sharpe said that barring a new influx of money, construction on a new $25 million building would begin no earlier than the 2013-2014 school year. Currently the district is in the planning process for a new Oak Grove High School and a new Sylvan Hills Middle School. Jacksonville residents have long felt like a stepchild, with the newest area school building constructed about 35 years ago.

Sharpe said the board would have to approve the new building, but that the Gordon and Associates study found it to be a tossup between the Jacksonville Middle School and the Jacksonville Elementary School as the third neediest in the district behind the Oak Grove and Sylvan Hills schools.

Ben Rice thanked School Board Member James Bolden III for voting against building the two new schools with no new school for Jacksonville. “Contrary to beliefs, your buildings are not the worst in the county,” said Sharpe. “The are well maintained and next on the list. They are in the target zone now.” Sharpe told Rotarians that the district was “cutting down windshield time,” for maintenance teams responding to sudden problems around the 520 sq. mi. district.

Sharpe also said administrators were taking a strong look at security on the campuses. “We want to tie-up loose ends on campus security,” he said. In response to questions about the district achieving unitary school status and getting off desegregation monitoring by the courts, Sharpe said attorney Sam Jones was keeping track.

The district gets nearly $20 million a year in desegregation money from the state, and would have to been weaned off that money if it achieves unitary status. Sharpe said he proposed a five-year phase out. Former Jacksonville Pinewood Elementary Principal Beverly Ruthven reported that good things were happening academically at the district, but a lot remained to be done.

She told of programs at various schools geared toward helping more students pass benchmark tests, including intervention specialist to assist teachers to help them teach and reach at-risk children. Sharpe said that while it’s important to help struggling students at all levels, the district needs to front-load its assistance—that is, make sure children are competent beginning in pre kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade.

He said only one-in-five boys come into the middle school performing at grade level, according to Principal Mike Nellums.
Fixing these performance problems is not a one or two-year deal, Sharpe said. “It’s going to take 10 to 12 years.” Former PCSSD board member Pat O’Brien, now the Pulaski County/Circuit Clerk, asked how many teachers had been fired for poor performance since 1999 out of the 1,300 teachers employed. When O’Brien suggested it might be none, Sharpe replied “That’s close.”