Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

TOP STORY >>Base wants help on schools

Leader staff writer

Officials from Little Rock Air Force Base, Pulaski County Special School District and the base Community Council have met quietly several times over the last six months to discuss replacing the aging Arnold Drive Elementary School with a new school “outside the wire,” according to Craig Douglass, PCSSD spokesman.

Brig. Gen. Kip Self, the wing commander, says the old school, located on the base, should be replaced and he has suggested that a new school could accommodate students from both Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools. Among the many complicating factors, the Defense Department can’t pay for a public school. Arnold Drive, bad as it is, is not the worst of the school district or Jacksonville-area schools. Such a project would have to be put on the district’s facilities masterplan to get any state matching funds.

The district itself, officially in fiscal distress, has committed such capital funds it has to building other schools, such as Oak Grove High School and Sylvan Hills Middle School. “My recommendation is for PCSSD to replace Arnold Drive Elementary School with a new school or relocate the school near North Pulaski High School,” Self wrote to Carmie Henry, president of the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council, a civilian support group. Both sites are on federal property, the general said.
Tuesday, Self took Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., on a tour of Arnold Elementary, part of her base visit. Cong. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock, visited earlier this month.

“Currently Arnold drive has 245 military family students and Tolleson Elementary has 158 military family students out of 266,” Self wrote. He noted that by 2010, 1,200 new and refurbished homes would have been constructed on base, impacting student enrollment at both schools. “A great bunch of kids is receiving a good education from dedicated teachers in, unfortunately, a very substandard school building that was built years ago to be only temporary,” Snyder said Tuesday. “At any given time, 25 percent of these kids have parents assigned overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan. We owe these parents and kids a better facility.”

Snyder, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he believed the base could donate some land, “but funding for the school building itself is the responsibility of the State of Arkansas and the Pulaski County Special School District.  I am hopeful that finding the funds for this school will be a priority of the (state) legislature and the school board.”

Arnold Drive, Tolleson and part of the base are in state Rep. Will Bond’s district, and while Bond says he’d like to see a new school, he said the Jacksonville area is full of decrepit old schools in need of replacing. “Sandra (state Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville) and I have met with Carmie Henry regarding Arnold drive and to determine whether there is any legislative fix,” Bond said Tuesday. “I’d say Jacksonville needs its own district to address all of the numerous problems,” he said. “We hope to have more meetings, including school board members, to determine the best way to deal with Arnold Drive. The problem, from a state perspective, we have in place a structure through which facilities needs are addressed, either a 10-year plan or an emergency.”

“The law restricts Little Rock AFB from using Department of defense appropriated funds to construct or refurbish any school that is not a Department of defense school,” Self wrote to Henry. “The school is literally 50 years old, leaks like a sieve, is not large enough, and is located on a main thoroughfare where children have to cross road with all airmen out there,” Henry said Monday. Lincoln addressed the school issue only briefly during a post-tour press conference, saying she wanted to make sure that base families are taken care of whether it involves the education of their children or modernization of base housing.
Henry has forwarded Self’s letter to state Sen. Shane Broadway and state Rep. David Cook, cochairmen of the Academic Facilities Oversight Committee.

Douglass, the PCSSD spokesman, said Arnold Drive was an old building converted “temporarily” about 50 years ago for use as an elementary school. He said district officials would meet with local legislators to press their concerns. “With an eye of looking at the facilities committee and whether Arnold Drive represents an opportunity for special consideration, where the state could match monies or help the district build a new school on property donated by the base.

“Part of the discussion has been, would there be an opportunity to fold Tolleson and Arnold drive together into a new facility?” Douglass said that 11 acres would be sufficient to meet state standards, but that an elementary school just large enough to replace Arnold Drive would cost $13 million to $16 million. He said Supt. James Sharpe expects to petition the state Education Department next month to release PCSSD from fiscal distress, which has curtailed district spending.
Heather Hartsell contributed to this article.