Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

TOP STORY >> Plea made at meeting to exempt $80M debt

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville school board member Bill Vasquez would exempt Jackson-ville from its share of a proposed $80 million debt to build a new Maumelle High School so his area could have its own district.

No action was taken Tuesday night at a Pulaski County Special School District board meeting as local residents pleaded with the board not to saddle them with more debt.

The meeting was called at the request of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association, which supports an independent district.

Will Bond, Daniel Gray and Bishop James Bolden told board members that there was no evidence to contradict testimony by the district’s own chief financial officer and superintendent that it could not afford the annual $5 million bond payments over 30 years to pay off that debt.

Ivory Tillman, a retired federal employee, told board members that the single-gender boys and girls middle schools in Jacksonville should not be combined without further study. Allow Jacksonville to make this decision once it has its own district, Tillman said.

Said Tillman, who arrived in a wheel chair, “If these old knees weren’t so bad, I’d get down on them and beg you.”

At its Feb. 10 meeting, the board voted 4-3 to float an $80 million second-lien bond for the Maumell high school and also to recombine the boys and girls schools.

Gray said that at a board workshop Feb. 6, Superintendent James Sharpe told the district it could afford to pay for an $80 million loan only for three to five years.

“Then on Feb. 10, the board voted to sell $80 million in bonds to pay for the Oak Grove/Maumelle High School,” Gray said.

“Now in a time of economic uncertainty is not a time to overextend ourselves,” Gray said. “It’s time to be prudent and conservative. We need to have assurance we can afford and that you’re not jeopardizing PCSSD or Jacksonville.”

Also attending in support of Jacksonville’s position were Mayor Tommy Swaim, banker Larry Wilson, state Rep. Jane English, state Rep. Mark Perry, Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien and representatives from the air base.

Former board member Lou Manfredini spoke on behalf of the Sylvan Hills Middle School, which may have been kicked to the curb in favor of the new high school at Maumelle. Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman also attended in support of that school.

A special meeting called by patrons of Maumelle schools followed the Jacksonville meeting in defense of its school and the second-lien bond. Former board member Pam Roberts was expected to present evidence that the district could pay for the bond issue.

“The issuance of bonds is bad for Jacksonville and north Pulaski whether we’re in or out of the district,” said Bond, a former state representative. “If we’re in the district we’re paying for a building we have no use of. If we have our own district, it destroys any chance of passing a millage.”

Bond suggested the district pay for part of new schools and let the area in question raise the rest of the funds.

Bond asked what kind of cuts the board would make to pay its bonded indebtedness in the future. “What other buildings will you not build. Will teaching positions be cut?”
As for the Jacksonville Middle School issue, Bond said we’re not opposed to combining the middle school, but with proper planning.

Bolden, a former board member, said the district only recently emerged from strict state supervision for being in fiscal distress and it could find itself in the same situation.

Gray and Bond both said that declining enrollment — which costs the district roughly $5,000 per student lost ­­— the likely loss of $16 million a year in desegregation funding from the state and also the loss of revenues when Jacksonville finally gets its promised district made it unlikely that the district could afford the new debt.

Bond said the group had been unfairly accused of being against building new schools.

“We’re not against building schools,” Bond said before the meeting. “We are against being obligated on the debt. The divorce papers (separating a Jacksonville district from PCSSD) have already been signed. If (the board) wants to go forward without our being obligated, that’s what they should do.

“If they want to issue bonds and give us 15 percent of the proceeds to start our building campaign, fine, but there has to be some level of fairness in this process,” Bond said.

Bond said a couple being divorced did not sign a mortgage obligating both parties to a debt; the party getting the house took out the loan and paid the mortgage.

“There doesn’t seem to be a scenario under which going forward with a bond issue is good for the students of north Pulaski County. It also makes a future millage increase less likely,” Bond said.

“Why is Mr. Vasquez (who represents most of Jacksonville on the board) supportive of this at this time. It’s directly in conflict with all the children of north Pulaski County,” Bond said.

He said the building also should be competitively bid. He said it appeared that Baldwin Shell Construction had been anointed construction project manager, and the new Maumelle high school, only a year ago estimated at $45 million, is suddenly an $80 million project.

At the February meeting, the board consolidated the two single-gender Jacksonville middle schools despite the suggestion of the superintendent and the pleas of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association to leave such a decision to the eventual Jacksonville district.

Vasquez, who voted to consolidate in February in the face of evidence that both test scores and discipline had improved, said then that the schools still failed to make adequate yearly progress.

He failed to note that of 13 middle schools in the district, 12 similarly failed to make adequate progress.

But it was Vasquez, Jacksonville’s own representative, who cast the deciding vote.
“The success of the Jacksonville single-gender middle schools has created a positive attitude,” said Tillman.

“Test scores have improved and disciplinary problems have been reduced at no cost to the district. Letters of intent were sent home and 92 percent of the girls and 94 of the boys indicated they would return to their current schools. These numbers are a positive reflection of the desire of the community to maintain the gender division. The original purpose of the separation of the schools was to improve student achievement and discipline. Facts were presented to the board in the last meeting to validate that this goal has been accomplished and will continue to improve,” Tillman

Tillman listed other reasons not to consolidate the two middle schools.

– Facilities would need to be upgraded.

– The combined schools would have the highest poverty level in the district.

– It would require a lot of effort to redraw schedules for the two schools.

– The building abandoned by combining the schools will be an embarrassment and a security risk.