Leader Blues

Friday, July 31, 2009

TOP STORY >> District plans get boost, but there’s a hitch

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Proponents of a standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district are putting the best face they can on Pulaski County Special School District action Wednesday that gave with the right hand and took away with the left.

Near the conclusion of a five-and-a-half-hour special board meeting, the board approved by a 6-1 vote boundaries for that proposed district that included the large but sparsely populated Bayou Meto attendance zone, the city of Jacksonville and a smaller unincorporated area that runs east along Military Road and on into Lonoke County.

Then just moments later, before the Jacksonville district contingent could celebrate, the victory train jumped the tracks, crashing into the brick wall Sherwood board member Charlie Wood constructed. By a 4-3 vote, the board approved Wood’s motion to cease all negotiation on the topic of Jacksonville’s detachment from PCSSD until the federal district court declares the district unitary — that is, desegregated.

“We just got hosed,” said Daniel Gray, a member of the Jacksonville Education Foundation, reflecting the frustration he and his Jacksonville district allies have often felt during a detachment process that started almost three decades ago.

“We’re not going to go away,” Phillip Carlisle called out from the audience.

Jody Urqhart followed with, “We’re voters and taxpayers.”

“They just shut us down,” Gray said. “They don’t want to talk to us ever — not until the district achieves unitary status,” he said.

“Once we’re unitary, there’s no need to even talk to them,” Gray said. “That’s why working diligently and in good faith is important.”

“We’re closer than we were,” said an unsmiling Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher.

Fletcher, who took office July 1 when longtime Mayor Tommy Swaim stepped down, said he didn’t necessarily see it as a double-cross by board president Tim Clark, who joined Wood, Gwen Williams and Mildred Tatum in voting to shut down further negotiations.

Fletcher met or spoke with Clark several times previously, and the mayor said he was surprised when Clark suddenly voted to shut down the process.

“The boundary was a major victory,” Fletcher said, “but it’s lost in the unnecessary act of cutting off negotiations. I don’t feel defeat, I feel we went forward. We can only go so far until we get the feel of the new federal judge and whether or not we get his blessing.”

U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson has passed the desegregation case off to new Judge Brian Miller. Miller has scheduled his first hearing, for lawyers to bring him up to speed, for 10 a.m. Sept. 30.

The meeting was stopped for about an hour while PCSSD attorney Sam Jones, Jacksonville Education Foundation attorney Patrick Wilson, Clark and McGill worked to rewrite the boundary resolution, which eventually was approved with only Williams in dissent.

Board member Gwen Williams said, “The World Class group doesn’t speak for (poor, black) people in my district.” She and Wood said the businessmen and chamber of commerce folks in Jacksonville didn’t speak for everyone.

“You’re going to push our backs against the wall,” said Williams. “Every month you come back with something else. I’m not going to be pressured. Every voice in Jacksonville has to be heard.”

Fletcher stood, raised his hand and stepped forward to say, “I’m not going to stay quiet while you take potshots at my community. It’s not fair. Stay with the agenda.”

To get the independent district out of court you must go into court, said retired Jacksonville attorney Ben Rice. Rice said Wilson had ruled that Jacksonville had no standing in federal court, but “that wouldn’t prevent a suit in state court, which could be removed to federal court. At least you’d have a seat at the table,” he said.

Jacksonville board member Bill Vasquez spoke and voted against the shutdown of negotiations, as did board members Danny Gilliland, who represents parts of Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge and the Bayou Meto Elementary attendance zone, and Shana Chaplin.

“There is some question as to whether the full board understood (the implications of the action),” Gray said Thursday.

“Hopefully it will be revisited. We are pleased that the boundaries are established. That allows us to move forward with a few things. But sometimes you can’t trust the PCSSD board. They told us a year ago they would negotiate with us.

“We’ll regroup and evaluate what our next move will be. We worked 11 months to establish (boundaries and trust),” said Gray.

“It took five minutes to break down trust.”

John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Intervenors in the desegregation case, came to the Wednesday meeting to speak against cutting the job of Brenda Bowles, deputy director for child and equity services, but he quickly expressed new-found opposition for a separate Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district.

One longtime ob-server said this was only the second time he had seen Walker actually attend a PCSSD board meeting in 20 years. Walker said he came at the invitation of Clark and Williams.

Walker said, “There is no educationally sound reason for (a Jacksonville-area district), no fiscally responsible reason for it. It would clearly re-segregate parts of the district.

“We spent 20-odd years in court and to approve something that would take us back to where we were before…children will go to charter schools and private schools and you’ll have another majority African-American (public) school which would be deleterious to attracting industry and people who want to have their children in public school.”

Walker promised more litigation if Jacksonville forms its own district, “and it’s going to be costly,” he said.

Of the new judge over the desegregation settlement, “No-body knows what his attitude is,” Walker said. “He hasn’t shown thus far any indication to move with alacrity in order to expedite.”