Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

TOP STORY >>AF officials, ask district for new schools

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Work could start on a new Jacksonville middle school as early as 2009 if a 5-mill property tax is approved by Pulaski County Special School District voters in August, but several school board members want various assurances before officially designating the middle school for early construction.

A new school to replace Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools is slated to be started no later than 2011-2012.

At a special meeting and workshop Monday night, board members seemed to favor adding a new Jacksonville middle school to the district’s 10-year plan, but balked at moving that school up to begin construction in 2009 unless a new bond issue was passed and the state Education Department says it would allow the plan to be amended if the bond issue didn’t pass.


WRITTEN CONFIRMATION

“I want written confirmation that if we put (the middle school) on the list and there’s no money—there’s no exposure for the district,” said board member Pam Roberts. “The plan must say (early construction) is contingent upon approval of the bond issue.”

The board will have to approve an amended plan by Feb. 1. To be eligible for state matching funds, construction projects must be on the district’s state-approved 10-year facilities master plan.

Because Pulaski County is considered a fairly wealthy district, the state will only provide about 10 percent of the funds for approved construction.

The cost of the proposed middle school is estimated at $25 million and is on Superintendent James Sharpe’s preliminary draft of the master plan. Both the Jacksonville middle school and a new school for the combined enrollment of Arnold Drive and Tolleson elementary schools—estimated at $15 million—are slated to begin in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

The new elementary school is on the existing master plan.


ARNOLD DRIVE

Col. Scott Lockard, 314th Missions Support Group commander, showed the board three potential locations the base engineers had identified as possible sites for a new elementary school to replace Arnold Drive.

He said a 13-acre site across from North Pulaski High School was available.

Brig. Gen. Kip Self, former base commander, and Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz, current commander, have lobbied hard for a new school to replace Arnold Drive Elementary and have offered free base land—outside the fenced perimeter—upon which to build it.

Other schools already slated for construction are the $40 million Oak Grove High School, beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, to be completed in the 2010-2011 school year; and the $25 million Sylvan Hills Middle School, during the same time frame.

Construction of the $13 million Chenal Elementary School should be complete next year. Sharpe said there should be a public hearing on the master plan, due Feb. 1, followed by a special board meeting to approve the amended master plan.


ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

“Academic achievement is our core mission,” said Sharpe. “Not walls and ceilings but what’s in the walls and under the ceilings. It’s not how a school stands, but what it stands for.

“All our secondary schools are on school improvement,” said Sharp. “If we’re not delivering in the classroom, we can build schools all around the county and enrollment’s still going to decline. We need to have this kind of discussion about academics.”

Several members of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization attended the meeting, with state Sen. Will Bond and Jody Urquhart addressing the board.

That group has identified construction of a new middle school as the top area project and prompted the board and administration to move up the proposed construction of a new middle school.


LOST FAITH

Urquhart said Jacksonville residents lost faith after they were promised new schools in 1990 if they helped approve a bond issue. They helped and the schools never came.

Since then, Jacksonville residents have taxed themselves for a new community center, a new city hall, a new joint education center and swimming park and Central Arkansas libraries. But a school millage increase later failed because residents didn’t believe there was anything in it for them.

“When you ask and promise and don’t deliver—people out there won’t vote for it unless you prove it,” Urquhart said.

“I’d like to see the Jacksonville middle school moved up a year or two,” said board president Charlie Wood. “We talked about a millage increase—if we got a 5-mill increase we could move it up a year or two.”

Such a proposal, to get the support of the Jacksonville area residents—40 percent of the population of the entire district—would have to earmark construction of a new middle school and elementary school in the ballot title.

Urquhart said the district had lost all credibility with Jacksonville residents, that they would fear cuts in other areas, such as advanced placement classes, if new schools were constructed in their district.


EFFICIENCY

Bill Vasquez, a Jacksonville board member, said that replacing both the boys and girls middle schools with one middle school would save money and that combining Tolleson and Arnold Drive students into one new building also would be cost effective.

Vasquez said his feeling was that Jacksonville residents want to tear down the boys school, move the boys into the girls school building and to build a showpiece school in its place—as early as next fall.

But Larry O’Briant, the district’s chief financial officer, noted that if Jacksonville and North Little Rock are declared unitary, Pulaski County could lose about $18 million a year it currently receives to support the desegregation agreement.

“We cannot build these schools without the millage increase,” O’Briant said. He said a 5-mill increase would generate $200 million. “Five mills would build the four schools you’re talking about,” he added. Bond noted that the new master plan moved the Arnold Drive Elementary from 2009-2010 back to the 2011-2015 time frame.

For the middle school, he said, “we need a 2010-2011 time frame or people will go though the roof.”