Leader Blues

Friday, June 05, 2009

TOP STORY >> No to portable buildings

Leader senior staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District officials say they will add five portables to alleviate a classroom shortage next year at the newly coeducational Jacksonville Middle School but the town’s mayor-elect says “not in our town you won’t.”

“Jacksonville is not a trailer park,” said Gary Fletcher, who assumes duties as mayor on July 1. “We’ve been here 100 years and I don’t support temporary buildings for a permanent problem.”

To the distress of many Jacksonville leaders and parents, its board member Bill Vasquez has worked for more than a year to dismantle the single-gender middle schools despite evidence that they were effective academically and in reducing discipline problems.

But the Pulaski Association of Class-room Teachers wants control of those schools. Vasquez, board president Tim Clark and Gwen Williams, all steadfast friends of the union, were joined by Charlie Wood of Sherwood earlier this year to combine the schools on Vasquez’s motion.

The issue cannot be voted upon again unless reintroduced by a school board member who passed the policy. Vasquez, Clark and Williams are unlikely to do so, leaving Wood as the last hope of the single-gender advocates.

Wood could not be reached for comment.

July 1 is the deadline to reconfigure schools for the 2009-2010 school year, and Jacksonville school activists will join the new mayor, his city engineer and others Tuesday night hoping to argue their case at the last regular school board meeting.

So far, they say they have not been able to get on the agenda to discuss the contentious item, but will at least speak out during the public-comment period.

Even if the action is not re-versed, the large coed school is still not a done deal. The U.S. District Court and the state could have something to say about the use of portables, according to Martha Whatley of Jacksonville. Whatley, a longtime educator, says the state wants to get rid of portables by 2010.

Jacksonville Fire Marshal Mike Williams may not approve the portables, or the overall condition of the building, which still has plumbing, electrical, drainage and other problems, perhaps including asbestos.

Whatley, Daniel Gray, Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), former Rep. Pat Bond and her engineer/husband Tommy Bond joined Williams, city administrator Jay Whisker, city engineer Chip McCulley for a tour of the building school officials intend to use for the coeducational middle school next year, and Perry said they were concerned.

“They are trying to put a fresh dress (on it), but the issue is structural as well as health related,” Fletcher said.

“We have to make sure everything falls into code, no violations from fire or health. The city has to have a say on code violations. We need to sit down and they have to understand what needs to be done,” Fletcher said.

“We want our (own) school district. We won’t accept anything less, and we want it now,” he added.

Whatley said that problems that must be resolved include asbestos abatement, plumbing, loose wires, and sub-standard bathrooms, and there were health concerns as well as fire-code and building code problems.

“I’m extremely concerned with what children are having to put up with,” she said.

“(The district’s) plans keep changing,” said Fletcher. “They sent plans to the engineer department for the middle school and now we’re told they are going to make a change. We don’t know what the plans are.”

The district had about $430,000 to get the building, known as building 600, ready to accommodate all middle school boys and girls and teachers next year, according to Gary Beck, acting executive director for support services.

But bids came back about $100,000 over that, so the project has been cut back.

Those numbers included leasing and setting up the five portable classrooms.

Instead of replacing the bathrooms, they will be repaired, he said. Also cut from the list are additional canopy replacements or repairs.

Some canopy will be repaired, some additional classrooms readied and drainage work done near the band room, Beck said.

“I don’t think the fire marshal will approve the plan,” Perry said. “In order to meet the capacity, they need portables,” said Perry.

He said that plan would have to be approved by U.S. District Court, where the school desegregation case languishes.

Perry said the portables also would have to be approved by city code and fire marshal officials.

PCSSD desegregation lawyer Sam Jones said Thursday that he disagreed.

Plan 2000 requires that we inform the Joshua Interveners of any plan that involves an increase in capacity, according to Jones, but “I don’t read Plan 2000 to require us to get approval of the court.” Jones said he was writing Joshua lawyer John Walker on Friday.

“We are past the point of remodeling,” said Fletcher. “We need new construction like the others (a new high school slated for Maumelle and a new Sylvan Hills Middle School).”

Fletcher and engineer Chip McCulley want to be placed on the agenda for the Tuesday night PCSSD meeting, but so far their plea has fallen on deaf ears, meaning they may be allotted only five minutes each to speak during the public comment period of the meeting.

Kim Forrest, appointed earlier to be principal of the coeducational school, spoke out in favor of postponing the move to a coed middle school, and many believe it was her outspoken advocacy that resulted in her sudden transfer to Northwood Middle School.

Jacksonville officials, activists who want a stand-alone Jacksonville school district and at least most of the teachers from the boys school have spoken out in favor of the gender-specific education, at least for one more year to provide for a more orderly transfer.

Also, many believe that the widely anticipated stand-alone Jacksonville school board should make the decision.

Perry says he will reintroduce legislation in the next session providing for the recall of school-board members, a very thinly veiled threat to Vasquez’s tenure.