Leader Blues

Monday, July 23, 2007

TOP STORY >>District would add balance

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A stand-alone Jacksonville school district of more than 6,000 students would be even more racially balanced than the existing Pulaski County Special School District from which it would be carved, according to figures supplied by PCSSD.
That would, of course, mean that PCSSD would then be slightly less racially balanced with the loss of those students to a new district.

At the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, the entire 18,374-student district was about 57 percent non-black and 43 percent black. But calculating attendance by race of the 6,682 students from the schools likely to be in a proposed Jacksonville district shows about 53 percent of the students would be non-black and about 47 percent black.
Of the 384 students who left the district during the school year, 302 of them were non-black.

“Students in a new Jacksonville district would be attending a desegregated school district with a diverse environment, respecting everybody’s opportunity,” according to state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville.

Bond sponsored two bills approved by the last General Assembly, aimed toward making such a district possible, but at a Rotary Club meeting Monday, several area leaders, including Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien – a former school board member – expressed concern that the Little Rock School Board’s recent decision to enter into a new desegregation agreement threatened PCSSD and a Jacksonville district.

Federal District Judge Bill Wilson ruled earlier this year that Little Rock had achieved unitary status and could be released from the existing desegregation agreement that binds it to PCSSD and the North Little Rock School District.

But against the strenuous advice of their attorney, Chris Heller, and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Little Rock’s troubled school board entered a new desegregation agree-ment under threat of appeal or lawsuit by attorney John Walker.

“I don’t think the Little Rock agreement necessarily has any effect (on PCSSD and Jacksonville),” Bond said. “No lawyer I know of thinks it’s a good idea (for Little Rock) to be in that agreement.”

He said the Little Rock School Board was ill-advised to sign the agreement.

He said he believed Walker would lose his appeal of the district’s new unitary status releasing it from court supervision.
When you win a case, you don’t go back and negotiate away your victory, Bond said. “The only effect is a huge distraction to getting all three districts in compliance,” he added.

Bond said that by the end of the new school year, the state would have spent more than $800 million to help fund the existing desegregation agreement.

One of his bills would allow the state to negotiate to phase-out the money – about $60 million a year – over as much as seven years.

Jacksonville leaders have been working intermittently for about two decades to get their own local school district, saying that the future of the city depends upon the ability to offer a quality education to its residents.

About two years ago, residents were ready to vote on whether or not to break off their own district from PCSSD when Wilson ruled that no such election or detachment could take place until all three districts were released from court oversight and the desegregation agreement.

With school board members seen as looking out for their own patrons in the far-flung district, new schools are underway in Maumelle and west Little Rock, while the newest Jacksonville-area school is about 30 years old.

Many in the community feel Cabot will continue to grow at the expense of Jacksonville until Jacksonville can get its own district, control its own schools and improve the education for local students.