Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TOP STORY > >School groups say they share common goals

Leader staff writer

Leaders of separate efforts to improve Jacksonville schools – one by establishment of a standalone school district, the others seeking to open two charter schools – are moving forward in the wake of two critical decisions by the Pulaski County Special School District Board last week.

Those spearheading the separate initiatives say they are not in competition with one another and in fact anticipate future partnerships between the charter schools and a new Jacksonville/north Pulaski County district.

The school board at its regular meeting last week voted unanimously in favor of a separate district because of study findings that it would financially benefit the Pulaski County district.

The board also voted unanimously against two proposals to open a charter school in Jacksonville. The vote supported the district administration’s recommendation to oppose the schools because of anticipated negative financial impact on the district. The district would lose $5,876 for each student transferring out of the district to attend a charter school.

Mike Wilson, a long-time activist for a separate district and supporter of the Lighthouse Academy charter school initiative, said that the board’s rejection of the charter school proposal was no surprise or cause for alarm. Historically, school boards routinely oppose charter school efforts.

“It is another illustration that the board is more interested in the district bureaucracy and protecting their finances than educating kids,” Wilson said.

The school board’s decision will be considered by the state Board of Education in November, when it reviews all charter school applications and decides which ones get a charter.

Wilson does not see a separate district materializing for quite some time, but when that time comes, he says the new district and charter school could benefit one other.

“The board’s vote was a great initial step forward. There are lots of hurdles to be jumped and it could be several years off,” Wilson said. “In the meantime, kids need to be educated as best they can do it. The charter school can be done right away.

“The charter school and separate district can cooperatively work together, have common services. There is every possibility of an eventual merger of those entities in the future. That has always been our intention.”

Buster Lackey, planner for the proposed Jacksonville Charter Academy, also sees the potential for a comfortable alliance in the future between the school and a separate district.

“We’ve told the mayor, we’re not in competition. We are offering a choice, and down the road we could be partners. It’s not,
‘We’re behind these four walls and you can’t see in,’” Lackey said.

As current principal of a Maumelle charter school, Lackey has helped forge partnerships with local public schools to share space for school athletics and teacher in-service training. He would like to see the same thing happen in Jacksonville.

“We want our building to be open to our community. It is closed summers, nights, and on weekends, and lots of groups would love to have that kind of space for classes and meetings.”

Lackey sees the charter school as a source of inspiration for the community as a new district takes form.

“The charter school could actually help the separate school district by encouraging everyone in the city to have a strong school district.”

State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, a leader on the separate district initiative, thinks fall 2010 is a reasonable time to expect a separate district to come together. Before that can happen, all parties to the district’s desegregation plan must “negotiate a global settlement,” which then must be approved by federal Judge Bill Wilson and the Arkansas attorney general. Bond hopes that will happen in the 2009 session, but it is hard to predict how supportive the Legislature will be “until parties come forth with a legislative plan.”

The movement for a separate district will lose its strongest advocate in the legislature when Bond is term limited at the end of 2008. So, he really would like to see everything gel in the next few months. He is optimistic.

“The stars are aligned for things to move forward,” Bond said. “Even John Walker said last week he would like for things to get worked out.”

Little Rock attorney John Walker represents the Joshua Intervenors, an advocacy group for black students affected by the desegregation plan for the three school districts in Pulaski County. A pending appeal filed by the group with the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals challenges a 2007 ruling by Wilson that the Little Rock School District has achieved unitary status, meaning it is no longer under court supervision of its desegregation efforts. The appeal contends that the district’s process for evaluating academic programs is inadequate and does not mean court mandates.

Another critical hurdle in creation of a new district is a ruling by Wilson that the PCSSD has also achieved unitary status. Some observers say that Wilson must wait for the Court of Appeals’ decision before making that ruling. Bond disagrees, saying that Wilson could go ahead and rule without a decision by the higher court.

Margie Powell, spokesperson for the Office of Desegregation Monitoring, says that a ruling by the Court of Appeals is anticipated in the next few months.

“This is taking way longer than expected. The arguments were heard in April and this has bogged down the process,” she said.

School board members Bill Vasquez, Danny Gillilland and Gwen Williams, who represent Jacksonville and north Pulaski County, could not be reached for comment about the board votes last week.