Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TOP STORY >> Board wants to go it alone

Leader staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District board member Bill Vasquez of Jacksonville, calling himself the man of the hour, led the charge Tuesday night against reviving talks with the city on its own district.

By a 4-3 vote, with Vasquez, Charlie Wood, Gwen Williams and Tim Clark voting no, the board opted not to repeal its decision at the last meeting and refused to reopen negotiations for the separation of the proposed Jacksonville school district.

Vasquez said after that vote that the board should approve an internal working group to provide the board with the necessary information to act on a future resolution to create a new Jacksonville-area school district. His suggestion was shot down, also by a 4-to-3 vote.

After the meeting, Mayor Gary Fletcher lamented that the city had only two choices – either initiate a lawsuit or wait until the Sept. 30 federal hearing, where Judge Brian Wilson will give the PCSSD and Jacksonville some direction on splitting into two districts.

Vasquez, in not wanting to negotiate with the Jacksonville Educational Foundation, which is representing the city’s efforts with the blessing and support of the mayor, said nowhere in the law does it say the board has to talk to an outside group.

“The school buildings in Jacksonville belong to PCSSD. The area belongs to PCSSD, and the decision and ability to separate belongs to PCSSD,” he said.
Vasquez added that there’s also nothing in the law that prevents PCSSD from handling everything on its own.

“This is an internal process,” he said.

A number of times, Vasquez insisted that negotiations were a board decision, and it would be on the board’s timetable.

“The real question is why we would want to negotiate with an outside party that doesn’t answer to anyone? It is this board’s decision and business. Not anyone else’s,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez called it a falsehood and a farce that the city had no representation in the matter. “There are three members on this board elected by Jacksonville residents,” he said, referring to himself, Wood, who is from Sherwood and Williams, who is from McAlmont.

Vasquez compared dealing with the foundation to owning two cars and trying to sell one. “Why would I need the neighbor’s advice?” he asked.

Daniel Gray of the Jacksonville Educational Foundation insisted, “We are not going away.”

The discussion started when Mildred Tatum told the board that she didn’t have a clear understanding and ramification of the resolution when she abstained from voting the last time.

“I knew I voted the wrong way 10 or 15 minutes after the vote. In my heart, I felt I had to do the right thing,” she said, explaining why she wanted another vote on the matter.

Wood, who earlier in the meeting talked about a time he changed his mind on a vote, didn’t see the need and said with a new board member coming on in two months the vote could just be changing again and again.

Wood said the board will no longer be inundated with requests about the issue from the outside and that the district needed to “concentrate on students, discipline and facilities.”

“Not that it’s (the Jacksonville district) not important, but it shouldn’t be a priority or focus,” he explained.

Wood said that dealing with Jacksonville’s demands “takes our attention away from educating students.”

Williams was also steadfast with her no vote, saying that the resolution said the talks were suspended, not terminated.

She wanted to wait for the judge’s ruling after the Sept. 30 hearing. “I still say we can’t go forward until the judge gives us direction,” Williams said.

She said that attorney John Walker, who represents the Joshua Intervenors, had already promised to tie the district up in litigation if it proceeded with plans to release Jacksonville.

In his defeated proposal, Vasquez called for the internal committee to give reports to the board in November and again in January to “allow action by the board on a resolution creating a new school district no later than March 2010.”

He said that way the district had time to go before the Arkansas School Board, and then on to the ballot for the November 2010 general election.

Board member Shana Chaplin said the idea of an internal committee and working on the issue without input was a lack of transparency. She said she ran for the school board to help make decisions more transparent and to get more parent and public participation.

“Yet we continue to work in the same culture,” she said.