Leader Blues

Friday, April 18, 2008

TOP STORY > >Decision frustrates backers of district

Leader senior staff writer

Supporters of a standalone Jacksonville-area school district say they are disappointed but not discouraged that the Pulaski County Special School District Board turned thumbs down Tuesday on a resolution that would have endorsed a Jacksonville district and would have asked the state Education Department to create one. (See editorial, p. 6A)

One Jacksonville school board member, Bill Vasquez, says that a Jacksonville resolution in support of a district could hinge on where Gravel Ridge students, whose community was recently annexed into Sherwood, will go to school.

Vasquez said he suspected that once unitary status was granted, Sherwood would like to have its own school district and that is the impetus behind Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman’s desire to have students from the recently annexed Gravel Ridge area not be included in the attendance zone for a Jacksonville district.

Hillman told the board Tuesday night that those students in the annexed area should attend school in Sherwood. Sherwood schools are part of the Pulaski County Special School District.

“We’re not trying to hinder what they are doing at all,” Hillman said on attempts to make Jacksonville a standalone district. “But one of those schools is 100 feet from our city limits.”

She said the Gravel Ridge area residents need to be asked if they want to attend Jacksonville schools.

As for Sherwood having its own district, she said she knew there had been talk of that in the past, but said, “We’d be wise to observe how (Jacksonville’s detachment) goes.”

Vasquez said he didn’t think the PCSSD Board would vote to let Jacksonville form its own district, but Jacksonville attorney Ben Rice, one of the crafter’s of Tuesday’s resolution, said that if school board president Charlie Wood could be convinced that Gravel Ridge area residents would like to be in a Jacksonville district rather than PCSSD, there would be enough votes to approve a resolution asking the state to create it.

“If the county isn’t going to change and administrate (Jacksonville schools) effectively, they should turn them over to us,” Vasquez said.

By a four-to-two vote, the board rejected the resolution crafted by Rice and Reedie Ray, a Jacksonville alderman.

PCSSD must first be declared unitary, that is, desegregated and to be released from the desegregation agreement and federal court oversight.

Proponents say the district is unitary in student assignment, which they consider the most important factor, and thus should be declared unitary.

Rice’s resolution is a recent de-velopment and its defeat has no bearing on existing efforts toward a Jacksonville district.

In 2003, those wanting to detach Jacksonville-area schools from PCSSD successfully petitioned the state Board of Education to allow a special election on the issue.

PCSSD, in an attempt to block that vote and possible loss of Jacksonville students and money, successfully sued in Federal District Court, saying the PCSSD was not unitary and thus Jacksonville could not have its own school.

Now, PCSSD has petitioned the same judge, Bill Wilson, for a declaration of unitary status. Wilson said he would not rule until the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis settled a similar matter involving Little Rock’s unitary status.

State Rep. Will Bond, like his mother Pat Bond before him, supports a Jacksonville district, and during his tenure had language and legislation approved to study the issue, to require the districts to apply for unitary status, for the state to help pay legal expenses in seeking unitary status and to phase out over several years the $60 million a year the three districts get to implement the desegregation agreement.

“It’s complicated,” representative Will Bond said Thursday. There could be four routes to get a standalone district:

The existing detachment statute would allow creation of a new district from an old one by petition and a vote, which is what proponents tried in 2003 but were sued by PCSSD.

The same statute allows for detachment by agreement of the local school board, which is what Rice and Ray were attempting Tuesday.

Within the desegregation bill approved in 2007 and amended in the special session this year, the state Education Department could itself create a Jacksonville district once the districts are declared unitary. That’s provided that the state can reach a settlement agreement with the North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.

Or the state itself, which controls the existence of political subdivisions like school districts, has the inherently recognized power to create the district.

“I think all the factors weigh in our favor. The district will be better off without us … in better shape to address their own facilities’ needs. It’s going to cost money to fix our facilities. How do we best deliver a great educational product to our kids?

PCSSD doesn’t do a very good job on facilities, retention and recruitment. PCSSD includes too many facilities to function efficiently,” Bond said.

Bond said that it was still financially feasible for Jacksonville to support its own district, even if Gravel Ridge’s Cato Elementary and Northwood Middle School remain in PCSSD.

“It’s a technical issue, not a make or break issue,” Bond said.

“I think we’ll see release (from the desegregation agreement) by the end of the year,” said Vasquez, who represents most of

Jacksonville on the school board. “From our perspective, it can’t happen soon enough.

“Jacksonville will have its own district in short order,” he said.

“Citizens of Jacksonville ought to keep their spirits up, come to the meetings, get on the mics and be vocal,” he said.

Vasquez said the administration has not offered any leadership in getting the district declared unitary.

“We’ve been held hostage (to desegregation rulings and agreements) for 30 years,” he said.

“There have been no proposals from the district,” Vasquez said. “We’ve had paralysis by analysis.”