Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Pressure on PCSSD to reopen old school

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Unable to get on the agenda, Jacksonville residents interested in reopening the single-gender Jacksonville middle schools and setting boundaries for a standalone school district waited nearly four hours just to hear their mayor-elect pledge to work with the Pulaski County Special School District Board.

During the public-comment section, Gary Fletcher, who will be sworn in as Jacksonville mayor at the end of the month, asked how in 18 months the board had gone from proposing a new Jacksonville middle school beginning in 2009 to expanding the old one with five portable buildings.

“If I brought up to start the design of a new Jacksonville Middle School, would you support that?” board member Charlie Wood asked.

“Yes, but we want an independent school district,” said Fletcher, who waited with his wife for nearly four hours on his 31st wedding anniversary to speak to the board. “By this time next month, we should have these boundaries solidified.”

There is no money identified with which to build the new Jacksonville school to which Wood referred, but there is $81 million in second-lien bonds to build a new high school at Maumelle and a new Sylvan Hills middle school in Wood’s district.

The current plan reverts to a single coeducational Jacksonville Middle School.

Before the meeting, Fletcher said that Jacksonville was not a trailer park and that between the health department, the fire marshal and city codes, he didn’t think the district could put those portables at the school.

Some had hoped that Wood would reverse his vote on the issue of the coeducational middle school, allowing one more year of the single-gender middle schools, but when board member Danny Gililland missed the meeting, it was clear there wouldn’t be enough votes for such a reversal.

“I look forward to an orderly plan so we may proceed on,” Fletcher said.

Wood said that the change to a coeducational Jacksonville middle school from two single-gender middle schools was “not quite set in stone.”

In an interview, he said that it would take his initiative to reconsider the issue, since of the four board members who passed it, he was the most likely to reconsider the measure. Wood also suggested that instead of placing five portable classrooms at the current boys middle school to deal with a classroom shortage, perhaps both single-gender buildings could be used for coeducational classes next year.

July 1 is the deadline to reconfigure the schools.

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. The district had about $430,000 to get the building 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 canopies will be repaired, some additional classrooms readied and drainage work done near the band room, Beck said.

Jacksonville residents, saying that their children deserve better schooling and the area deserved better schools in the competition for population growth with neighboring Cabot, Ward and Austin, have worked for about 20 years to carve out a Jacksonville-area standalone school district.

Fletcher echoed those sentiments at the Tuesday night meeting.

Now, with PCSSD saying it won’t oppose such a district and with improved chances that PCSSD and North Little Rock will soon be declared unitary (desegregated), the people of Jacksonville believe they are on the brink of getting their own school district. Little Rock already has been declared unitary and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that finding by U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson. It was Wilson who ruled that Jacksonville couldn’t have its own district until PCSSD was ruled unitary.

Some are upset that their board member Bill Vasque 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.