Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

TOP STORY >>State releases PCSSD from fiscal review

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

After squirming under the thumb of the state Education Department for two years for poor money management, the Pulaski County Special School District is once again free of the state’s micromanagement. Upon the recommendation of the Education Department, the state Board of Education Monday released both PCSSD and the Cross County School District from fiscal distress oversight.

PCSSD’s challenge will be to continue the careful spending that brought the district from the brink of financial disaster to financial stability. “We will be able to do more for our schools, fixing them up” said Bishop James Bolden III, a Jacksonville area school board member.

He said people and groups may come looking for more money or services. “We have to use wisdom. We’re not going to start spending like we’re crazy,” he said. “We have our independence back,” said Jeff Shaneyfelt, a board member. “That’s important. We still have to abide by department of education rules and regulations, but we have more control. “Let’s not go back and do anything contrary,” he added.

During that time, teachers and support staff accepted scaled down pay increases and reductions in the number of paid holidays. Homer Adkins Elementary School was closed, the number of administrators shrank, school counselors were let go, in-home workers were cut and so was the number of math and language specialists and maintenance workers.

Some schools were told they couldn’t operate on the block schedule because the seven-period schedule saves money.
The board now could face an influx of employees, former employees, parents and others who felt that they were denied while the district had to stick to a tight budget and strict state Department of Education oversight. “The district isn’t going to do anything substantially different,” said Craig Douglass, the district spokesman.

“Any requests that require additional expenditures will be considered case by case,” he said, but the district would cleave to “the conservative fiscal policies that allowed us to come out of fiscal distress in the first place.” He said that the ending balance for the district for the last two school years was $7.9 million for 2004-2005 and $9.2 million for the 2005-2006 school year.

In petitioning the state Board of Education, PCSSD Superintendent James Sharpe wrote, “It is important to note that we did not cut academic programs, and we are continuing to maintain our facilities, buses and to upgrade technology.” The Cross County District also was released from the fiscal distress list. The district had gone through about $12 million in savings over about three years and was primed to move into the red when the state intervened in 2005. Had the district not turned around its fortunes, it could have been consolidated with another district or taken over by the state. Those were not idle threats. The state has invoked both of those sanctions.

State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, says PCSSD is a wealthy district and should never have been on fiscal distress.
“In Jacksonville, we should be on facilities distress,” Bond said. The PCSSD system, second only to the Little Rock School District in number of students, has made significant progress after it was classified as fiscally distressed in April 2005, state officials said. The district’s school board created a detailed fiscal distress plan that included staff cuts, reducing employee benefits and eliminating block scheduling at all but two schools.

In block scheduling, students attend fewer classes per day, but attend them for longer periods. Instruction time over the course of a year remains the same. The Pulaski County district was placed on the fiscal distress list after it was projected to be more than $5 million in the hole for the fiscal year that ended last June 30. In a letter to the state, Superintendent James Sharpe said the district expected to end this fiscal year with more than $12.5 million on hand. Districts remaining on the fiscally distressed list include: Dollarway, Helena-West Helena, Hughes, Lead Hill, Midland, Omaha and Turrell. Helena-West Helena and Midland remain under state control.

Associated Press contributed to this story.