Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TOP STORY >> Jacksonville gets relief on its debt

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville board member Bill Vasquez broke ranks with the usual four-person voting bloc Tuesday as the Pulaski County Special School Board approved a resolution that could let Jacksonville-area school patrons off the hook for part of the $80 million second-lien construction bond Maumelle school.

Jacksonville gets a pass only if it can be done legally and only if and when it gets its own school district.

Board president Tim Clark, Gwen Williams and Charlie Wood argued to table the resolution. But Vasquez, their usual fourth ally, cast the deciding vote allowing the resolution to come up for a vote. He then cast the deciding vote with Shana Chaplin, Danny Gilliland and Mildred Tatum to approve the non-binding resolution.

The resolution authorizes the district’s lawyers and representatives of Stephens Inc., which is handling the bond, to work together toward drafting language that would let Jacksonville off the hook for $5 million a year of that $80 million bond.

That $80 million is just enough to build yet another new school in Maumelle at a time when most area students have to make do in a decrepit schools district while all district patrons have ponied up for new schools in Maumelle and Chenal.

“I’m going to support this and I hope it goes through tonight,” said Vasquez. He said it wasn’t good for the district as a whole, but that it was good for the people in his Jacksonville district.

Vasquez is frequently at odds with Jacksonville school district activist.

On Feb. 10, the board voted by its usual 4-3 vote to end the three-year foray into single-gender education for the middle school students in Jacksonville, which some say was bearing fruit by better test scores and fewer discipline problems.

Meanwhile, Wood said he would bring a resolution at the next meeting intended to overturn the board’s unanimous decision a year ago endorsing a stand-alone Jacksonville school district.

“Because of heavy-handed tactics with me, I’m at the point of resending” the issue to the board, said Williams.

COED SCHOOL COSTLY

Next year, all middle school students are to attend classes in what is now the Boys Middle School. Jacksonville Boys Middle School principal Mike Nellums and Asst. Superintendent James Warren said it would cost several hundred thousand dollars to set up the five portable classrooms some believe are necessary, plus rental of the portables at about $90,000 a year.

Nellums said that including the rehabilitation of restrooms for the girls, bringing some currently unused classrooms up to standards, pouring sidewalks and doing earthwork to place the portables, plus running new sewer and water lines to them could easily make the cost of renovations and portables $500,000 to $1 million.

Also the district will have to pay additional teacher salaries, add or renovate science and computer classes and erect a covered walkway over a new sidewalk between the school proper and the portables.

“We have 25 classrooms usable today,” Karen Hawks, a middle school teacher, told the board. “We need 39. We’ll have the largest middle school in the district,” she said, noting that it would also serve mostly students from low-income homes.

Nellums asked Clark to get answers regarding the work needed and the costs so he could pass them on to parents who had inquired.

POSSIBLE BUT COSTLY

Asked if it were possible to make the necessary improvements, Warren said it could be done, but it was going to cost a lot of money and pull the district’s 37 maintenance, construction, electrical and plumbing workers off the repair jobs they had expected to do this summer.

Tiffany Green, who said she represented McAlmont parents, said Harris Elementary School was dilapidated and unsafe and suggested the board “take your eyes off Jacksonville for a minute and let them handle the boys and girls as they see fit—and look after our school and our children.”

Williams, who is usually a strong advocate for Harris, which is in her district, seemed to argue against more help for Harris, saying that the school had gotten a lot of improvements over the past few years.

Local NAACP president Rozelle Aaron said that the single-gender Jacksonville middle schools were having success with the black students, boys especially, and could be one key to keeping young black men out of prison.