Leader Blues

Monday, March 19, 2007

TOP STORY >>Bill could lead way for Jacksonville district

IN SHORT: Legislators from the area helped pave the way for a bill that will split Jacksonville school district from PCSSD.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

A bill aimed at ending nearly two decades of Pulaski County public school desegregation oversight, unanimously approved in the Senate Thursday, now lacks only the governor’s signature and $1.5 million in funding, according to state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville.

Bond, the bill’s author, credited Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, with House Bill 1829’s smooth course through the Senate.
“Sen. Capps did a great job shepherding this bill through the senate,” said Bond, calling it a testimony to Capps’ experience.
It passed the House 90-3.

While this bill does not create a stand-alone Jacksonville-area school district, it makes one possible.

“The bill is an attempt to move the desegregation case along until all three districts are declared unitary,” Bond said. The Little Rock district was declared unitary—sufficiently desegregated—and released from the agreement earlier this month.
Federal Judge Bill Wilson cited failure of the districts to achieve unitary status in his decision to disallow a vote on the issue of a stand-alone Jacksonville-area school district about three years ago.

“There hasn’t been any incentive or stick in the past to move toward unitary status and save on funding,” said Bond. The state supplemented funding to the three districts by about $58 million last school year, and the districts have become dependent upon that extra money. “Hopefully, this will do it,” Bond said. “But I don’t want to over-promise.”

The bill includes language that allows, but does not mandate, creation of an additional school district and it also prohibits dissolution of the Pulaski The bill would require the state Education Department to hire a qualified desegregation consultant by October 1 and to seek federal court review and determination of current unitary status and also to seek modification of the current consent decree so that the state could craft a post-unitary agreement, phasing out the desegregation funding until all such funds were spent by an agreed-upon date.

Bond’s companion bills, still in committee, would provide $500,000 to reimburse the attorney general’s office for legal fees spent seeking unitary status and $1 million to hire desegregation consultants.

Over the life of the decree, the state has supplemented the three districts to the tune of about $700 million, Bond said.
Bond said Jacksonville-area residents had been working for more than a decade to get their own school district. He said they were ready to make decisions for their kids.

Bond said that the districts have said they’ve met unitary, or desegregated, status but said the threat of losing extra state funding has created a “disincentive” from asking a federal judge to end monitoring. Currently the state kicks in about $60 million a year for desegregation-related expenses like busing. Pulaski County’s share of that is about $15 million—about 10 percent of the 18,000-student district’s annual budget.

Bond said Friday that he expected to have the funding mechanism nailed down by next Wednesday.
Overall, this has been a great session for the state’s students and school districts, he said.

“As much criticism as we’ve been under on educational funding, in six years we’ve increased funding more than any other legislature in history. We’ve done a lot of work toward making sure the public school system has a chance to be world class.