Leader Blues

Friday, July 24, 2009

TOP STORY > >District future hotly debated at Bayou Meto

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Outraged Bayou Meto-area residents complained Thursday that they are fed up with the Pulaski County Special School District.

But some of them don’t want to send their children to Jacksonville schools.

They expressed their frustration at a community meeting to discuss the fate of the students in north Pulaski County if and when a new district is formed in the area.

Lisa Otey, wife of Little Rock Air Force Base commander Col. Gregory Otey, told school officials and others that she had pulled two of her three children out of the Pulaski County Special School District since the family arrived in January, calling the facilities “no better than schools in eastern Europe — in East Germany before the wall fell down.”

Otey was one of about 20 people who took advantage of a town meeting to tell district officials their thoughts on whether or not those in that attendance zone would prefer to continue their affiliation with PCSSD, to affiliate with the proposed — but not inevitable — Jacksonville district, or to split that affiliation down the length of state Hwy. 107.

The back gate of LRAFB is in the Bayou Meto Elementary attendance zone.

More than 150 people squeezed into the Bayou Meto cafeteria, with many of them filling out questionnaires to express their thoughts before they left.

Interim Supt. Rob McGill told them that last September the board had voted in favor of a standalone Jacksonville-area district, but that many steps would be required. Setting boundaries was one important step.

“We’re here to get information about what you’re wanting to do,” he said.

District boundaries are pretty well agreed-upon with the exception of the Bayou Meto attendance zone.

The board will meet in special session at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the results, although it is not clear whether or not they will formalize boundaries of the proposed new district — including or excluding the Bayou Meto area students — at that time.

The town meeting, moderated by former state Rep. Sandra Prater, revealed a strong sense of community in the area, strong passions, people operating on misinformation and a lot of thoughtful questions.

Some expressed concern that Northwood Middle School, where area students had traditionally gone to school, had been ceded by Jacksonville to PCSSD to appease Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman and those who want Sherwood’s boundaries to correspond with its attendance zones.
Otey, the commander’s wife, said, “I come as a concerned mother and the representative of our families on the Air Force base.”

While the Oteys sent two of their children to school in North Little Rock, she keeps the youngest on the base at Arnold Drive.

“I would like to let you know that the families of our military have children who are at risk. Their families are fighting the war on terror,” she said.

“I have never seen schools in this state of disrepair and lack of money and lack of support. And I personally do not wish for my children and the children of the military families that we have to attend schools in these types of situations,” Otey said.

“I have spent a lot of time in the last several months with the leadership of Jacksonville, the people of Jacksonville, and I can tell you they are very passionate about LRAFB, about all of the schools that would be in this new district.And just because you are out here on this far northern side, I want you to know that they have felt this hurt and this pain for as long as you have and they only want what is best for their children as well. And if we all come together, then we can make this happen.

“I cannot give you an official representation of the base, but I can tell you as a parent of a military child that I would really like your support on this,” she added.

Nancy Albott said she wanted to stay with PCSSD because she understood that her children would have to leave the area and go to school at Sylvan Hills schools.

Shawn Wren said Northwood Middle School needed to remain with North Pulaski High School because they share such programs as band and other music facilities.

Philip Tougas said he had a child going into second grade at Bayou Meto. “I love this school. Why would we want to be part of your school problems? I don’t want my students to be part of your program,” he said.

Board member Gwen Williams warned that a Jacksonville district would have to raise taxes to operate. But financial consultant Don Stewart said that wasn’t true and that no taxes could be raised without first electing a new school board. That board would then have to vote to put a bond issue before the people, and then the patrons would have to vote in favor of it.

Susan Jeffers, an area resident, said no new bond issues had been approved for about 30 years, because they trusted former Superintendent Bobby Lester, but didn’t trust current and former board members who keep running off superintendents by buying out their contracts.

“If you get a Jacksonville district, you need to take Cato (Elementary) and Northwood (Middle School) with it.”

Among those who addressed the assembly, board member Charlie Wood told them he thought they should stay with PCSSD and that they had no guarantees that taxes wouldn’t be raised in a Jacksonville district.

He said Jacksonville just wanted them in the district because their benchmark scores are so high and to make the proposed district “whiter.”

Among other officials who spoke were McGill; board member Bill Vasquez, who represents Jacksonville; board president Tim Clark, who represents Maumelle, and board member Gwen Williams, who represents McAlmont and Scott, as well as Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, Daniel Gray of the Jacksonville Education Foundation, and Donald Stewart, the consultant hired by the foundation to assess the fiscal feasibility of both a Jacksonville district and also PCSSD in the absence of the
Jacksonville district residents and the real estate.

Fletcher told the group that because of old, poor schools all but ignored by the PCSSD, neighbor Cabot had grown 54 percent over the past 10 years, while Jacksonville had grown a paltry 5 percent.

“I’m on the tail end of something that started 30 years ago,” he said.

“There’s no question that we can support a district,” he said. “The question is, do you want to join us?”
“I believe you ought to have the opportunity to determine what you want to do,” said Wood. “That doesn’t’ mean I don’t have a preference. I want you to stay with our district.”

“Jacksonville needs you because you have the highest test scores. You’ll be carrying more than your weight. And Jacksonville needs more white kids.”

“Jacksonville has the lowest wealth index,” Wood said. “Your wealth index is needed to run their district.”

Gray responded that Jackson-ville’s low wealth index was a blessing because it means that the state would pay 65 percent of the cost of approved new buildings, while in Pulaski County the state pays almost nothing.

Gray also said that while the patrons of Bayou Meto now have one board member, who also represents two other areas, it is likely it would have its own board member in a Jacksonville district, one of seven, all of whom would represent areas of the relatively compact (compared to PCSSD) school district.

Danny Gililland, who represents the area now, was out of town on a family vacation planned long before the town meeting was set 10 days ago.

LeeAnn Fortson asked how much the taxes on a $200,000 house would be in a Jacksonville district. Exactly the same as in PCSSD, Stewart told her.

Peggy Kestler asked if affiliating with a Jacksonville district would be the first step in Jacksonville annexing the area.

Kem Phillips said PCSSD officials seemed defensive and probably should since ceilings at Bayou Meto have fallen in, the hot water has been turned off to save money and the administration is operating without air conditioning. “I don’t want my child promoted into PCSSD,” she said.

Patricia Goodman said, “When I have to ask myself the question about where my community is, my community is not Sylvan Hills. When I go shopping, I go to the base or Walmart in Jacksonville. I go to church in Jacksonville. Everything I do, I do in Jacksonville, not Vilonia, Conway or Sylvan Hills.

“Now we have nothing to compare to when we compare the Pulaski County Special School District for what it is and the Jacksonville district for what it might be, because we don’t know what it might be.

“I will have a very strong hand in that because I am part of that community. I have no say whatso- ever in the Pulaski County Special School District,” she continued.

“Whatever the Jacksonville district could be — that could be completely up to me and everyone in this room. It’s not the people who live across the river. I work for the Little Rock school system. I would rather work for the Jacksonville School District but I won’t work for Pulaski County,” Goodman said.