Leader Blues

Friday, March 12, 2010

TOP STORY >> Witnesses say funds misspent on schools

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Interim superintendent Rob McGill will be in the hot seat in U.S. District Court on Monday morning when the Joshua Intervenors continue trying to show that the Pulaski County Special School District has not made a good-faith effort to desegregate.

Also expected to testify Monday is Mildred Tatum, a 28-year veteran of the school board and its first black member. A parent of a black child shoved by a teacher in the hallway at Northwood Middle School will also testify, according to John Walker, lead attorney for the Joshua Intervenors.

The black principal who attempted to discipline the teacher was shortly thereafter reassigned to another school.

For nearly three decades, PCSSD, along with the North Little Rock and Little Rock school districts, have been intertwined in a large and expensive court-ordered desegregation agreement. Little Rock has been declared unitary.

The Legislature in 2007, under the guidance of state Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville, provided some incentives for PCSSD and the North Little Rock School District to also seek unitary status.

Board president Tim Clark Friday morning resumed testimony. Walker continued questioning whether or not the expensive new school slated for Clark’s district would be convenient for Maumelle students at the expense of the black, economically disadvantaged students who live near Oak Grove High School.

The school board decided to replace Oak Grove with a state-of-the-art school in Maumelle even though the facilities report attached to Plan 2000 called that school “adequate for instruction.”

Clark said that when he joined the school board, then-Superintendent James Sharpe told him Oak Grove High School “needed to be blown up.”

The new school, being built across the street from the Maumelle Middle School, will be large enough to accommodate 1,500 students, although only a fraction of that are currently in the pipeline.

“You could have expanded Oak Grove for less money,” Walker said.

“If you wanted to be unwise about spending the district’s money,” Clark said.

Walker seemed to be showing that Clark and the board have approved two new schools and spent $6 million expanding nearby Pine Forest Elementary School at the expense of needier schools in poorer, blacker areas such as College Station, McAlmont and Jacksonville.

Clark replied repeatedly that Maumelle was the fastest growing area in the state and needed new schools.

“Why haven’t you voted to replace College Station Elementary?” Walker asked.

“That’s Miss Tatum’s area, if she wanted it I could have voted for it,” he said, even as Tatum shook her head “no” in the audience.

He questioned Clark why Mike Nellums, then principal of the predominately black Jacksonville Boys Middle School, had been refused Title I funds for his after-school programs. He also wanted money for math and literacy coaches and intervention specialists, said Walker, so why was he refused while Pine Forest got Title I funds for those positions.

When PCSSD’s attorney Sam Jones questioned Clark, he asked, “Aren’t title 1 funds for elementary schools? And Nellums’s school was a middle school?

As much a statement as a question. There’s been a lot of that by both sides in this hearing. Jones said that Nellums got the money for those programs, but from other funding sources.

Austin Porter Jr., co-counsel for the Joshua Intervenors, questioned board member Charlie Wood along similar lines, asking if nearly all of the $20 million in stimulus money hadn’t gone to predominantly white schools.

He asked Wood why the newer Clinton and Crystal Hills elementary schools, each of which had been slated for a few thousand dollars worth of roof repair, split about $5 million worth of roof repair, while the older, needier elementary schools like College Station and Harris got much smaller amounts.

Wood tried to explain that an engineering firm that had been monitoring the roofs at those two schools found them to be unsafe and to require extensive repair and replacement as quickly as possible.

Under cross examination by Jones and working from district school enrollment tables, Wood testified that some of the schools described as overwhelmingly white by Porter were between 40 percent and 55 percent black.

The Kahn Report, commissioned in 1999, found that College Station was technologically inadequate with roofing, plumbing, HVAC, electrical and the kitchen, lighting and security, sanitation and health and safety.

All inadequate, asked Porter, so why was so little done at the school?

The Joshua Intervenors also tried to show that the two board members were not familiar with Plan 2000, which is the desegregation plan, and had done little to try to decrease the disparity in discipline rates and academic achievement between blacks and whites.