Leader Blues

Monday, February 16, 2009

TOP STORY >> Principal: decision is harmful to students

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The decision this week to recombine the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Middle schools had nothing to do with the welfare of the students and everything to do with appeasing the teachers’ union and with getting rid of him, said boys school principal Mike Nellums.

By recombining the two schools, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers believes it can gain control by asserting the authority of the site-based, decis-ion-making council at the girls’ school, which it controls, Nellums said.

Bill Vasquez, who represents most of Jacksonville on the Pulaski County Special School District Board, led the way Tuesday on a 4-3 vote to recombine the boys and girls schools next year, saying neither school had made adequate yearly progress.

That was despite data that the boys school had shown large increases in the percentage of students testing adequate or proficient in algebra and several other benchmark exam categories.

Vasquez’s argument was false and misleading, Nellums insisted.
He said that few, if any, PCSSD secondary schools were making the federally mandated adequate yearly progress,

Vasquez sacrificed the welfare of Jacksonville students in his zeal to do the bidding of the PACT, including efforts to get rid of him, Nellums said.

Bill Barnes, director of secondary education for the district, confirmed Thursday that of the 13 secondary schools in PCSSD, 12 failed to make adequate yearly progress. Only Robinson Middle School met that goal.

Nellums said some groups at the school made adequate yearly progress, but not those in special education and not black males. He said, “Those students still made more progress than most (corresponding) groups in the district.”

“It was a concerted effort by a handful of board members to meet the request of one board member. Several of them had not visited our school at all.”

“Vasquez came in as union- supported and for 18 months he’s tried to move this one administrator,” Nellums said. “They want to control the school and the community from the site-based decision making council,” he said, which is dominated by union members.

Others who voted to recombine the two schools, with the possible side effect of getting rid of Nellums, are board president Tim Clark and board members Gwen Williams and Charlie Wood.

PACT PAID

Clark was unopposed in Sep-tember in his effort to take the open seat when Pam Roberts stepped down and Williams was re-elected.

Both took contributions from the teachers union or activist members, according to campaign- finance reports on file with the Pulaski County clerk’s office.

Williams took at least $600. Williams has voted steadfastly in the union’s interest for years and Clark has voted consistent with union interests since taking office.
Charlie Wood has joined Clark, Williams and Vasquez.

Superintendent James Sharpe had recommended that Vasquez’s motion to combine the schools be tabled and that the decision be left for Jacksonville residents to make once it gets its own school district.

The Jacksonville World Class Education Organization had sent Sharpe and all board members letters asking for just such a delay.

Using official PCSSD data, proponents of leaving the schools separate showed that discipline referrals at the boys school were cut nearly in half between the first year of gender-specific schools and last year, and were on course for an additional 35 percent decline this year.

Again using school data, they showed that benchmark scores climbed steadily over the three years of data, with 75 percent of Algebra 1 students testing proficient or advanced in 2008.

Eighth-grade benchmarks climbed from 16 percent proficient or advanced in 2006 to 42 percent proficient or advanced in 2008, and this in a school with the highest percentage of free and reduced lunches and highest percentage of children with disabilities, said one teacher.

REORGANIZATION

Barnes said work would begin immediately to reorganize the single-gender schools into a coeducation school for the 2009-2010 school year.

He said core curriculuum might still be gender specific. He postulated that the two school would be combined in what is currently the Boys School, in part because of the audio-visual lab that Nellums and his teachers had established.

He said administrators would have to deal with seniority of teacher wanting to transfer in or out of the new school, with a master schedule and with who the principal would be.

The school would need a new LEA number from the state, which identifies the school for many purposes, including tracking testing and scores.

“There’s a lot of things still up in the air,” he said.

LOSING OUT

Of even greater concern to those promoting a standalone Jacksonville district was a 4-3 decision by the board—Clark, Williams, Vasquez and Wood—to float $81 million worth of second-lien bonds to build a new high school at Maumelle.

In addition to committing the district to $5.6 million a year in payments to retire that bond, it puts the new Sylvan Hills Middle School on a back burner and leaves the promised replacement for the Arnold Drive School at Little Rock Air Force Base in question. It also seems to postpone indefinitely construction of a new Jacksonville Middle School.

Chief financial officer Larry O’Briant said inflation in the cost of building materials had suddenly escalated the cost of the new Maumelle high school, originally slated for construction in Oak Grove, from about $45 million to about $80 million.

Wood, who represents Sher-wood and Sylvan Hills, voted for that measure even after O’Briant told him his district’s new school would probably have to wait now for voters to approve some future millage issue.

Maumelle will have all new schools, so residents there might be less likely to vote for a millage increase.

Jacksonville school district advocates say that when they finally split off from PCSSD, they don’t want to be saddled with 15 percent of the payments on $81 million for a new school in Maumelle.

One suggested that additional financial burden could doom efforts to have a standalone district.