Leader Blues

Sunday, July 01, 2007

TOP STORY >>Commander favors abandoning PCSSD

IN SHORT: New base boss pushes for an independent school district for Jacksonville, citing outdated facilities.

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

Col. Rowayne Schatz, the new commander of the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, wants an independent school district for north Pulaski County, saying that outdated school facilities in Jacksonville have not provided adequate educational opportunities for the children of airmen stationed at the base.

In an interview in his office Thursday, Schatz said education is one of his priorities, along with better housing and family support.

“Arnold Drive Elementary School is substandard and needs to be replaced,” the colonel said. “I’m looking forward to meeting with the school superintendent (James Sharpe) and asking him: ‘What’s the plan? How can we help?’”

Some 400 children of airmen attend Arnold Drive on base and Tolleson Elementary School just outside the base. The Defense Department pays the Pulaski County Special School District about $250,000 a year in federal impact aid in lieu of taxes.
“I’m interested in seeing how that money is spent to support our kids on base,” Schatz said.

The commander pointed to the Cabot School District, where many airmen live and send their children to new schools, while Jacksonville schools are in very poor shape.

He said that while the Cabot School District continues to build new schools, the PCSSD is languishing.“If you look at Cabot compared with Jacksonville, you have a visible example of how good schools can drive growth in a community,” the commander said.

The state Legislature passed a law allowing the formation of a north Pulaski County school district, but the legislation is tied up in federal court.

The bill was passed with support from former Rep. Pat Bond (D-Jacksonville) and later her son, Rep. Will Bond, who helped pass legislation allowing a feasibility study on the viability of such a district, which the study found would be self-supporting.
Because PCSSD has opted to build new schools outside the Jacksonville area, Schatz likes the idea of an independent district that might replace its old schools, which are 30-50 years old or older.

He has two children in the sixth and eighth grades and will have to decide where to send them to school.

He is familiarizing himself with the district not only for the sake of his own children, but for all the families with school-age children in the district.

“I’m obviously interested that they provide the best quality education possible,” the colonel said.

Brig. Gen. Kip Self, Schatz’s predecessor at Little Rock Air Force Base, has pushed for a new elementary school on base property, and although the district has agreed in principle to build one, that could take several years because of PCSSD’s financial problems.

“Four to five years is too long,” Schatz said, referring to the district’s promise to build an elementary school sometime in the next decade.

The school could cost as much as $16 million.

Carmie Henry, president of the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council, a citizens group that supports the base, agrees Arnold Drive is in terrible shape.

“The school is literally 50 years old, leaks like a sieve and is not large enough,” he said recently.

Supt. Sharpe said previously that Arnold Drive had been added to the Pulaski district’s master plan because of lobbying by Self, the state’s congressional delegation and community leaders, who said a new elementary school would add to the future and viability of the base.

The Arnold Drive project may have jumped ahead of the proposed new Jacksonville Middle School building discussed publicly by Sharpe and Jacksonville school board member James Bolden III.

(This is the second part of a three-part series on Col. Schatz. The first article appeared last Wednesday, and the third part will appear next week.)