Leader Blues

Friday, September 12, 2008

TOP STORY > >Jacksonville is closer to having its own district

Leader senior staff writer

Despite its unanimous approval — in principle — of creation of a stand-alone Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district, a last-minute amendment to the resolution empowers the Pulaski County Special School District School Board to determine the exact boundaries of that district and which schools become part of it. (See editorial, p. 6A.)

The resolution as originally presented laid out the boundaries for the proposed new district and designated the schools involved. That’s how school finance expert Donald Stewart was able to calculate the amount of projected tax revenue and student aid that both the new district and the remaining PCSSD could expect.

In the end, it was the Stewart study’s conclusion that two districts could survive and even thrive that helped the board do what none of its predecessors had done in 30 years—endorse the idea of a Jacksonville district.

Jacksonville is the largest city in the state without its own district.

Jacksonville board member Bill Vasquez, who introduced the resolution endorsing the split, accepted fellow board member Pam Roberts’ amendment to let the PCSSD board determine who’s in which district. Vasquez also accepted an amendment stating the board’s intention to defend its remaining borders vigorously in negotiating with the state and with adjoining districts.

State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jack-sonville, said he was disappointed that the proposed boundaries in the resolution weren’t adopted, but that it could be worked out later in negotiation and that it was likely to be similar, if not the same, as boundaries that the Jacksonville district proponents proposed and Stewart used.

“I think it’s finally a realization of the board that splitting off is in the best interest of all the children in the district,” Bond said on Thursday. The reason breakaway efforts were stopped in 2002 and 2003 was that PCSSD sued Jacksonville and went to federal court to stop a vote on the issue. Now there’s a resolution that says PCSSD is in favor of the district, said Bond. “That’s a sea change. That’s a big deal.

“We were disappointed it was amended because the county would still have a say in the boundary,” Bond said.

Sherwood’s desire to have all its city limits in one school district played an important role in drawing up the proposed boundaries, Bond said. “But a unanimous vote for a proposition that the county board has fought against as long as anyone remembers—all the hard work over the years has paid off,” he said.

Bond said that there would probably be some public meetings to nail down the boundaries for the new district. He said the important thing now would be to finalize a detailed timeline on ending the desegregation agreement that has bound PCSSD with the North Little Rock and Little Rock districts for decades, as provided by ACT 395 of 2007. Bond was the author of that legislation.

During the meeting, three of seven board members asked questions that seemed to signal they could vote against the separate district. Gwen Williams, running for reelection, questioned what would happen to the teachers and support staff. Bond said they would likely be assigned according to seniority and that the two districts were likely to need everyone they have.

Bond said, “We couldn’t draw quality teachers and administrators if salaries weren’t competitive,” but noted that was a issue to be resolved by the first Jacksonville school board, once its elected.

Brenda Bowles, assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, said that years ago, when the Little Rock District took some schools and territory from the district, it created a financial hardship. Stewart, who was just taking over as chief financial officer of PCSSD at the time, said they were tough years, but not necessarily the result of Little Rock’s annexation.

He said the PCSSD was left poorer by that action, but would actually be in a better position if Jacksonville split off.

Moving forward, this is in everyone’s best interest, said Bond. “We need new facilities right now. It should have been done years ago.”

Bond said the quickest route to a Jacksonville-area district would be for all the parties to end the desegregation agreement, for Jacksonville to detach from PCSSD and for the state Board of Education to create the district.

“I don’t know that a declaration of unitary status (by Federal District Judge Bill Wilson) is required. We do have to show that breaking off wouldn’t have a negative impact,” Bond said.

Board member Danny Gilil-land, whose district straddles Jacksonville and Sherwood said despite Sherwood Mayor Virginia’s insistence that all part of Sherwood remain in the district, nearly all the patrons he’s spoken to want to be part of the Jacksonville district. “We’re chasing a ghost,” he said.

“When you have the opportunity to govern yourself, closer to home, you might get more done,” board president Charlie Wood said. “The committee has made a good faith effort to resolve the boundaries. I believe they can build (Jacksonville) buildings faster than we can.”

Pulaski County and Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien, who served on the PCSSD school board was at the meeting in support of the Jacksonville district. Board member Mildred Tatum told him she had always been skeptical when O’Brien advocated for a Jacksonville district.

“I thought I never would say yes, let’s go ahead and do it,” she said to O’Brien. “But now I’m going to say yes,” she said, beaming.