Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

TOP STORY > >Petition for separate district denied

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

The politics of annexation spilled over publicly for the first time Tuesday night into the debate over a stand-alone, Jacksonville-area school district.

By a vote of 4-2, a resolution endorsing the idea of a Jacksonville district and asking the state Education Department to move forward on the issue failed.

Pulaski County Special School District Board president Charlie Wood justified his “no” vote by saying that Gravel Ridge area patrons don’t seem to want to be part of a Jacksonville District.

By a 3-1 margin, Gravel Ridge voters last month chose to annex to Sherwood rather than to Jacksonville.

Under consideration was a resolution crafted by Jacksonville attorney Ben Rice, which read in part: “Be it resolved by the PCSSD board of directors that the Arkansas State Board of Education is hereby authorized and directed to take such steps as might be necessary to allow the creation of a new school district in the Jacksonville area, by detachment from the PCSSD.

“The proposed new school district includes all areas in the attendance zones of Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski High School.”

Just last week, Wood told attendees at the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce luncheon that he didn’t think a standalone Jacksonville district was a good idea, but that he would vote to allow residents to decide the issue for themselves.

But Tuesday night, he said many patrons in the Cato Elementary School and Northwood Middle School attendance zones would rather attend Sherwood schools. “I think you do not necessarily speak for the people living out in the county,” Wood said. “If you can prove (they do) then I would endorse that.”

Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman spoke to say that her city wanted those students attending PCSSD schools in Sherwood.

Citing part of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Bill Vasquez, who represents Jacksonville on the board, made a motion to approve the resolution.

“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,) it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…” he read, adding, “My constituents want to declare independence to ensure happiness and prosperity.”

Danny Gilliland seconded the motion to have a new district.

But Wood, who Jacksonville supporters thought they could count on, dashed their hopes, saying he could vote only to support a district within the Jacksonville city limits.

Joining him in voting down the resolution were Pam Roberts, Mildred Tatum and Shana Chaplin. Board member Gwen Williams didn’t attend.

Rice and Alderman Reedie Ray gathered petitions to require the special meeting. Ray asked the school board to “let my people go.”

Jacksonville businessman Mike Wilson, banker Mark Wilson, parent Wanda Thomen and Jackson-ville Mayor Tommy Swaim spoke before a packed house in favor of the resolution.

Swaim reminded board members that city limits change and are not always a good match for school district attendance zones.

“I see my friends and neighbors here tonight,” Mike Wilson said. “We need to provide the best schools we can for them. We can do that locally, directly and concisely in a fashion you’ll be proud of.”

Mark Wilson, his nephew, said he was representing himself and his one-year-old son, Storm.

“He deserves good schools in his home town. Under Pulaski County Special School District, there’s not much chance of that.

You are killing our town slowly, day by day. This district is an ineffective bureaucracy,” he said.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Wilson blocked a vote by residents in those zones on the issue, ruling that Jacksonville and PCSSD were still constrained by the 2000 desegregation agreement.

Wilson deferred ruling on petitions from North Little Rock and PCSSD for unitary status, which could end federal oversight and open the door for a Jacksonville district, until the 8th U.S. District Court of Appeals in St. Louis rules on an appeal of Little Rock’s declaration of unitary status.