Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

TOP STORY >>Group wants to save schools

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A group of friends—guys that grew up together—is the basis for the latest effort to improve Jacksonville-area schools, and by default, the entire community. In some cases, these are literally second-generation Jacksonville education activists.

“The Jacksonville World Class Education Organization is not a secret society,” according to Mark Wilson.

“We are just a group of friends who grew up together and care about each other and the future of Jacksonville.”

The group, convened by state Rep. Will Bond, attended Jacksonville schools and now they have begun families of their own and are taking steps to improve areas schools, starting with facilities. They are particularly interested in seeing a new Jacksonville middle school, because the local elementary schools all feed into the middle school and it is perceived of as discouraging area residents from sending their children to school in Jacksonville.

“We’ve been relying on our parents’ generation to change things,” Wilson said. “We need someone else to pick up the leadership. There’s not many in Jacksonville who wouldn’t look favorably (on a stand-alone district), but there’s a lot of hurdles. We want to work with the district and be helpful to the district, getting new facilities out here and improving education of our young people.”

The World Class Education Organization of Jacksonville has prepared a five-minute video that details the deteriorating condition of many Jacksonville schools—a video that has been shown at the Pulaski County Special School District Board meeting, the chamber of commerce education meeting, the Rotary Club and elsewhere.

Filmed and edited by realtor Daniel Gray, the video is intended to bring home the message that the district and the community need to get busy. The video has gotten 400 hits on YouTube, Gray said.

Right now, the organization is focused on getting a new Jacksonville middle school included on PCSSD’s 10-year master facilities plan.

Without such inclusion, the district won’t qualify for any state matching construction money.

Such a new school would cost roughly $30 million, according to Larry O’Briant, the district’s chief financial officer.

Of that, the state could be expected to provide about $4 million, but only if the school is on the master facilities plan.

O’Briant said it could take about $200 million to build the necessary schools and make the necessary repairs throughout the district.

It would take an increase of 7.7 mills to raise that amount, according to Carey Smith of Stephens Public Finance Inc.
He estimated that would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 about $154 a year in additional taxes.

Superintendent James Sharpe and the district board are exploring the feasibility of putting such a millage increase before district voters to finance school construction and repair, perhaps as early as next August.

“What we first have got to do is make a true and fair assessment in respect to facilities, what it will cost to renovate and refurbish or replace certain buildings,” Sharpe said.

A Jacksonville middle school could be built by 2014 and could move ahead of Arnold Drive Elementary School on the 10-year master facilities plan.

“The problem in Jacksonville with (passing) a new millage is lack of trust,” said Bond. “We need to have construction on a facility. We’ve been ignored for so long, it’s time for them to prove they are committed to our facilities.”

Jacksonville residents and school patrons have formed four groups—with some overlap of members—to improve education here.

Sharpe said he envisioned a special election for a millage issue in which the schools to be built would be singled out in the ballot. That way, Jacksonville residents would know that passing the increase would result in construction of a new middle school there.

The four groups, though overlapping, that have formed to improve education or facilities in Jacksonville are:

n The World Class Education Organization of Jacksonville, in its infancy, is currently focused on getting a new middle school.
“We have to crawl before we walk,” said Pat O’Brien, the Pulaski County circuit and county clerk, who is one of the gang of friends.

He said he expected the group to incorporate and elect officers.

n Jacksonville Educating Our Children, a group dedicated to carving a stand-alone Jacksonville school district from PCSSD. Bond, Bishop James Bolden and Dr. Glenn Bolen were the main figures in this group about two years ago when it last actively pushed for the district. Federal District Court Judge Bill Wilson stymied them, at least until such a time as PCSSD is declared desegregated and free of court oversight.

The district filed Oct. 29 in federal court for such a designation.

n Jacksonville Education Foundation—presided over currently by former state Rep. Pat Bond, Will Bond’s mom. Its members include Mayor Tommy Swaim, former Superintendent Bobby Lester, businessman Mike Wilson, Paul Mushrush, Bob Stroud and others.

This group has donated $50,000 for computers for the new Jacksonville library for students to use and has leveraged a $5,000 Wal-Mart grant into bringing a show to every elementary school in the area, theater workshops for the high schools and other enrichment activities, Pat Bond said. “We have an emphasis on literacy and math.”

n Jacksonville Charter School—Mike Wilson is a driving force behind a possible charter school here. He said Tuesday that if such a school were started, it could be the anchor for a new school district.

He said a charter school would not threaten or detract from the other, allied efforts to improve local education. “There’s lots of overlap, and everybody’s headed in the same direction,” Wilson said.

Those interested in exploring a charter school will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday at North Pulaski High School’s Parent, Teacher, Student Association, where the state Education Depart-ment’s Ann Brown will discuss charter schools.

On their own, local insurance man Mark Perry and Jacksonville middle school football coach Barry Hickingbotham have strong-armed and cajoled folks into building a field house that is now up and in the dry.

Originally estimated at $250,000, the metal building, pad and facilities will come in at about $400,000.

Recently, Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, with the help of the Jacksonville store, donated $25,000 worth of materials toward completion of the project.

“What we need now is an electrical company to help us,” Perry said.

He said he underestimated the amount of work and length of time it would take to finish the building.

Perry said the field house would complement the new Jacksonville middle school, if and when it’s built.

Jay Whisker, the Jacksonville administrator, said his responsibility in the World Class Education Organization is to serve as a liaison with the city.

“Most of us (in the group) have young children, so we are concentrating on the middle school,” he said.

Pulaski County School Board members Bill Vasquez and Danny Gililland have said they favor a new Jacksonville district and support the notion of building new schools in Jacksonville and refurbishing others.

Former board member Bolden said he would continue to work to make sure the district gets its share of PCSSD money and attention. Meanwhile, “I hope Vasquez makes a lot of noise,” Bolden said.

Others working with the World Class Education Organization of Jacksonville include Paul Davis, of Whit Davis — who said he was moved by Bond’s call to arms and by the video to help — Greg Keeton, and Lt. Col. Lisa Redinger.