Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TOP STORY >> Group objects to funding school

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

A special school board meeting has been called for Tuesday at the request of 228 Jacksonville-area residents afraid that an $80 million second-lien bond to build yet another new school in Maumelle will saddle them with so much debt that Jacksonville might never get the standalone school district for which they have worked so diligently.

Some members of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association feel that their board member, Bill Vasquez, has taken positions contrary to the best interests of Jacksonville residents, according to Daniel Gray, one of the association’s activists.

Jacksonville residents are also upset with plans for a Sherwood middle school. (See p. 3A.)

Despite a dire warning by Pulaski County Special School District chief financial officer Larry O’Briant that the district may not have the revenues to pay off that bond, the board voted 4-3 to proceed with selling bonds, and ground will be broken at 10:30 a.m. Friday for the Maumelle High School. That precedes the special meeting by four days.

O’Briant said that the district stands to lose many millions of dollars a year when the state stops funding desegregation efforts for the three public Pulaski County school districts, that enrollment has declined for 15 years and the district will lose even more if Jacksonville finally gets it standalone district.

Furthermore, if the $80 million second-lien bond is finally approved and then Jacksonville breaks off, members of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association fear that area residents will be responsible for 15 percent of that $80 million debt, but with nothing to show for it.

“The debt-to-income ratio would adversely affect (creation of a Jacksonville district) and we might need a new feasibility study,” according to former state Rep. Will Bond.

“The prudent thing is to hold off or adopt an amendment to the bond issue saying that it will not attach that debt to the proposed new district,” said Bond, who has been among the leaders seeking a Jacksonville district.

Bond is moving to Little Rock, where he has become managing partner of the McMath Law Firm, but he remains active in seeking the new district for his hometown.

Bond also questions the propriety of the PCSSD board, particularly Vasquez, recombining the boys and girls middle schools at Jacksonville.

“We believe any rush to combine the schools without proper planning, funding and proper communication with Jacksonville area students and parents would be adverse to their interests,” Bond wrote to the board prior to the February meeting at which the board recombined the schools.

Both he and Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim say that decision should have been left for the eventual Jacksonville district board to decide.

The petition for the meeting asked to discuss the financial impact of those second-lien bonds, the possible loss of desegregation funding and projected enrollment decline on the ability to repay the bonds, and also the possible effect on teacher’s salaries and positions in the event that bond repayment causes a shortfall.

It suggests possible litigation over the matter, the near doubling of the cost of the Maumelle High School and the bid process.

The petition also asks for a discussion establishing a finance committee to monitor and investigate long-term deficit ramifications and finally, the recombining of the single-gender middle schools.