Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

TOP STORY >>Backers cry out for new schools

By JOHN HOFHEIMER & GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader staff writers

As Jacksonville schools continue to lose students, many of them to Cabot and other nearby districts, community leaders said Tuesday that losses can only be stopped if new schools are built.

Danny Gilliland, a Pulaski County Special School Board member who represents parts of Jacksonville, told members of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce that they must get behind their schools, otherwise there’s no guarantee they will survive.
“I’m amazed by the number of Jacksonville (area) leaders who don’t have their kids in the system,” Gililland said.

Gililland told the meeting at the community center that he had trouble finding employees for his Popeye’s restaurants who could read, count change and speak good English.

He said that people in the community and in the business community needed to support and fight to keep the district, “otherwise you’re asking for the community to die.”

“Common sense does not prevail on a regular basis on that school board,” he said when asked if the board would put the Jacksonville Middle School buildings on the 10-year facilities master plan.

A new group called Jacksonville World Class Education Organization is pushing to replace the city’s aging schools, some of them 50 years or older. The Jacksonville Education Foundation is also working to improve the schools.

“The Jacksonville Education Foundation hopes to hire a part-time director by the end of the year to focus efforts on improving education in Jacksonville-area schools,” former state Rep. Pat Bond said Monday.

“What we need is someone to keep us all going in the same direction,” said Bond, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

That person will gather and disseminate information, stay in touch with the school board, administration and other players involved in public education in Jacksonville.

Echoing Gilliland’s warnings, Bond decried an education system that made it difficult for her husband, Tommy, to hire qualified engineers.

Also addressing the chamber’s annual education luncheon was Bill Vasquez, Jacksonville’s newest representative on the Pulaski County Special School District Board, who, along with Gilliland, pledged his support for adding Jacksonville’s middle schools to the district’s 10-year facilities master plan.

The school board members said they thought the idea had broad board support and could be approved at the January meeting.

Jacksonville activists, who have been foiled for more than 20 years in their efforts to carve a stand-alone school district from the far-flung PCSSD, have broadened their approach to improve area schools and facilities here without waiting for a separate district.

The district filed in federal district court Oct. 29 for unitary status, which could clear the way for a Jacksonville district.
Bond said she was frustrated by people asking why the chamber was involved in school issues, and some of the activists said they were disappointed by the response.

“It’s only the number-one economic issue that drives any community. Everyone who makes a dollar in this community has an interest,” she said.

“The city stands ready to help with financing,” said Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim, provided that the district would commit those funds to the Jacksonville area.

He said passing a bond issue supported by a dedicated sales tax could raise funds.

Swaim said earlier efforts to fund a computer lab in local schools was rebuffed by the district, which said it couldn’t guarantee that the computers would stay in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville has a good history of passing taxes if the residents understand how their community would benefit, most recently the tax to pay for the new public library.

Vasquez said public education in Pulaski County is a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry, perhaps three-quarters of a billion dollars if you include private schools.

Changes are coming, he said.

“Ninety percent of the classrooms in this county my grandmother would be comfortable in. My son, with a $600 (iPhone) has more technology in his back pocket than some schools.”

With public and private schools, distance learning and home schooling, education is changing from a monopoly to a competitive model, he said.

“The challenge is how to become dynamic in a competitive market place to meet the needs of your children,” he said.
The World Class Organization of Jacksonville, the newly formed group dedicated to improving Jacksonville area schools regardless of the district they are in, showed the video it made of the poor conditions of facilities in the area.

“The realization is that the middle school facility is really in trouble,” according to Pat O’Brien, the Pulaski County circuit/county clerk and himself a former PCSSD board member.

It was formed because “we wanted to fight for our community,” he said.

Said O’Brien, “There’s hope. We’re not giving up.”

The wrapup speaker was state Rep. Will Bond, who not only took over his mother’s place in the state Legislature five years ago, but also her devotion to education issues.

Bond said that even if on the district’s 10-year facilities master plan, the state would only pay 13 percent of the cost of building new middle schools, but that without inclusion on the list, the project could receive no state funding.

But the slide in enrollment will make it even more difficult to replace old schools — many of them are less than half full — although he said Arnold Drive Elementary School on the base could be combined with nearby Tolleson Elementary, with a new school built on the periphery of the base.

The district is losing its middle class, Bond said, pointing out that 70 percent of the middle school students receive reduced or free lunches.