Leader Blues

Friday, August 29, 2008

TOP STORY > >A separate district is favored in new study

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Separating a proposed Jacksonville-area district from the Pulaski County Special School District is feasible and presents no insurmountable financial impediments to either, according to the former deputy commissioner of the state Education Department.

The Jacksonville Education Foundation hired Donald M. Stewart, who also was the former chief financial officer at PCSSD, North Little Rock and Little Rock districts, to consider all the financial ramifications of the proposed split, and he says it’s doable.

The PCSSD School Board is expected to consider a resolution at its September meeting that supports allowing Jacksonville and most of north Pulaski County to split off and form its own district, contingent upon PCSSD and North Little Rock being declared unitary and escaping court desegregation oversight.
GUT FEELINGS

“A lot of the comments that we hear are focused on opinion, gut feelings,” said Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, whose work in the legislature has lit a small fire under the
districts to get them declared unitary, which is a prerequisite to any stand-alone Jacksonville district. “The reason we put together test score data (and financial data) is to say, ‘Look at the facts, the data support this,” he explained.

“Let’s get away from a commitment to status quo. Let us have the area and run our own district. There’s not one thing that doesn’t support this breakaway,” Bond said.

“I agree,” Stewart said.

He said that far from being harmed, the split would simultaneously make PCSSD a wealthier district and allow it to shuck responsibility for repairing or replacing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of inadequate school buildings in the Jacksonville area.

NEW SCHOOLS ON HOLD

Currently, the PCSSD Board has promised Jacksonville a new middle school and a new elementary school to be built at Little Rock Air Force Base, contingent upon voter approval of a bond issue to pay for them.

Since west Little Rock and Maumelle have each recently gotten a new school—without need for a new bond issue—enthusiasm for a millage increase throughout the district may be low.

But Jacksonville residents have a long history of supporting taxes to support important projects when they trust the people in charge, according to Daniel Gray, a Jacksonville realtor.

If Jacksonville does get a district, “there would be a shift in local revenue,” Stewart said. “The (new) district would maintain about 35 percent of the children but only about 15 percent of the assessed property.”

But the Jacksonville-area district would have revenues and resources competitive with those in neighboring Cabot, and as far as competition goes, proponents of a Jacksonville district have long seen Cabot, not PCSSD, as its competition.

DEBT RATIO

“We will have a lower debt ratio,” said Bond. “We would be able to thrive. It’s definitely sustainable, and people in the district could control their own destiny.”

Bond, Gray and several other Jacksonville leaders not only have pushed for Stewart’s financial report, and before that the Gordon Report found that the districts were essentially desegregated and that a Jacksonville district was feasible, but also put together a presentation that shows PCSSD benchmark tests are better than those of students in North Little Rock or Little Rock, but they trailed behind the test results in neighboring Cabot.

The perception and perhaps the reality is that Cabot schools siphon students and residents away from Jacksonville.
Even as Jacksonville secondary schools have steadily lost enrollment for a decade or longer, a Cabot enrollment graph is nearly a mirror image, with steady gains at about the same rate.

DISTRICT BOUNDARIES

The proposed new district would be bounded by Sherwood and by Faulkner County on the west, Faulkner County on the north, Lonoke County on the east and the southern boundary is Jacksonville’s southern city limit and Wooten Road to Lonoke County.

The district would consist of the following schools:

Arnold Drive Elementary, Bayou Meto Elementary, Homer Adkins Pre-K, Jacksonville Elementary, Murrell Taylor Elementary and Pinewood Elementary.

Also, Tolleson Elementary, Warren Dupree Elementary, Jacksonville Boys Middle School, Jacksonville Girls Middle School, North Pulaski High School and Jacksonville High School.

Using those boundaries, the feasibility study explores projected revenues, tax rates, facilities needs and teacher salaries, among other data.