Leader Blues

Friday, May 29, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Has anybody seen Vasquez?

The Pulaski County Special School District, with the complicity of board member Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville, has permanently closed Jacksonville Middle School for Girls and, starting in August, will send its students to what will be the city’s only middle school. It’s a sad loss for the city’s struggling education system.

Girls’ school principal Kim Forrest, who was scheduled to lead the consolidated middle school, spoke out against the plan. She recognized that the change was too fast, too soon and that the price for failure would ultimately be paid by students. She was quickly reassigned to Northwood Middle School, in what appears to be payback for expressing her honest and professional opinion.

Boys’ school principal Mike Nellums, a much-admired principal who also opposed combining the schools, has been reassigned to Joe T. Robinson Middle School, apparently another petty and vindictive action by the PCSSD board.

No longer are just administrators speaking out. At the Jacksonville Boys Middle School graduation ceremony last week, students, parents and teachers spoke highly of Nellums and were unhappy that the school was losing him.

They voiced their concerns about the haphazard and thoughtless manner in which PCSSD has proceeded with its plan. All were concerned with classrooms becoming overcrowded when the two schools are combined, which they expect will lead to behavioral and disciplinary problems. Others mentioned the disarray that the administrative turnovers will create at the schools.

But Bill Vasquez has ignored those concerns. It was his motion at the board meeting that combined the schools, but he has gone missing in the debate about whether it was wise to do that. He has been conveniently unavailable to explain his support for consolidating the schools, failing to answer or return several calls from elected officials and this newspaper.

Jacksonville business leaders working toward a standalone school district have long complained that Vasquez ducks their calls.

He apparently feels that his allegiance is to the PCSSD board and PACT, the teachers union, not to Jacksonville residents. His explanation is long overdue. It’s time for him to come out of hiding.

What will Jacksonville gain by radically transforming its middle schools? Why were Forrest and Nellums moved out of town?

Were their professional views threatening to teachers and administrators who hate new ideas and innovation?

It is difficult to believe that Vasquez, a Jacksonville resident, voted for shutting down a school in a city that has not built a new one in 30 years.

Except for Vasquez, the single-gender schools might well have been left for the eventual Jacksonville-area district board to decide. The city deserves an open, honest debate about its schools. It also deserves a board member who will be available to discuss its most pressing issues.

As a broker for Jacksonville’s educational interests, Vasquez has accomplished little. Jacksonville has not only lost a school but is without a responsible board member. What a shame.

Next year, the students at the restructured middle school will look out the window and see the old girls’ school with its boarded windows and ask themselves why their classrooms are so crowded. They might call their school board representative, but they shouldn’t expect to hear back from him anytime soon.