District campaign set to go

Jacksonville vote just 6 weeks away

Posted: August 4, 2014 at 3:56 a.m.

Jacksonville civic leaders will begin campaigning this month for voter support of a ballot measure at the Sept. 16 annual school election on forming a new Jacksonville/North Pulaski school district.

In March, the Arkansas Board of Education authorized the rare election on establishing a new public school district in response to a petition signed by 2,079 Jacksonville-area residents and after the federal judge presiding in the long-running Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit agreed that the new district could be formed in accordance with the requirements in state law.

Efforts to carve a Jacksonville district out of the 700-square-mile Pulaski County Special School District date as far back as the 1960s and have been particularly unrelenting since the early 2000s.

Despite that long history, there will be a campaign to educate voters about the September ballot measure, said Daniel Gray, chairman of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District Education Corps as well as the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

"This is probably the biggest thing to happen to Jacksonville since the Little Rock Air Force Base located here," Gray said Friday about the potential for a new district that would serve about 4,000 students at 10 schools. "We need people to understand how big a deal this is. This is just a huge opportunity."

The campaign will begin with a public meeting on the topic at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Jacksonville Community Center.

That will be followed by other public meetings and efforts by the Education Corps members to speak to civic, community and church groups, including those in the Bayou Meto area and in Pulaski County communities outside Jacksonville city limits but in the area proposed for the new district, Gray said.

"There's overwhelming support," Gray said about a new district. "We know it. Some of our research and polling have shown that. But we want to really knock it out of the park -- just build some momentum because September 16 is really just the beginning.

"I'm totally excited about the future," he added. "There is so much hope."

Only voters living in the territory proposed for detachment from the Pulaski County Special district will be eligible to vote on forming the new district, according to language in state law about forming new districts. Residents in other parts of the Pulaski County Special district, including people who live in Sherwood, Maumelle, Wrightsville and west Pulaski County, are not eligible to vote on the issue.

The area proposed for detachment includes the Jacksonville city limits plus areas north and southeast of the city. The boundaries for the proposed district were set by the School Board for the Pulaski County Special district back in July 2009.

Ten schools, including North Pulaski and Jacksonville high schools, are within the proposed boundaries.

The other schools that would be in the new district are: Bayou Meto, Murrell Taylor, Pinewood, Tolleson, Arnold Drive and Warren Dupree elementary schools; Homer Adkins Pre-kindergarten Center; and Jacksonville Middle School. The former Jacksonville Elementary and Jacksonville Middle School-North are also in the proposed district but are currently not used as schools. The Pulaski County Special district also has a school bus lot in the affected area.

The campaign will center on the benefits of a separate district, Gray said. Those benefits include the use of tax dollars paid by Jacksonville-area residents in nearby schools, expansion of the curriculum in areas such as Advanced Placement courses and the fine arts, the improvement of aging school facilities, and greater local control of the school system.

"We want our parents closer to the decision-makers," Gray said about the governance. "The school board for a new district will be made up of seven people from Jacksonville or north Pulaski. We won't have to drive 35 minutes to Dixon Road to talk to the administration or to address our concerns."

The Pulaski County Special district headquarters is at 925 E. Dixon Road in southeast Pulaski County.

Even if a majority of voters at the Sept. 16 election approve forming a new school district, the creation of a new district will not be immediate. The Jacksonville area is likely to stay under the jurisdiction of the state-controlled Pulaski County Special district and subsequently the state Department of Education at least through the 2014-15 school year, state and Jacksonville officials agree.

The Pulaski County Special district is also under federal court supervision over school desegregation obligations.

Gray said that some "light" conversations are occurring before the election among attorneys for the Education Corps, the Pulaski County Special School District and the state of Arkansas about a possible transition to a new school district. Those issues include governance, staffing, salaries, the division of property and existing debt in the Pulaski County Special district.

"We'll take our fair share," Gray said about the debt, and added that the financial matters and all the other issues can and will be resolved.

Last week, Arkansas Education Commissioner Tony Wood said he intends to ask the Arkansas Board of Education at the Aug. 14 meeting to approve a process for involving Jacksonville area leaders in nominating individuals to serve on a seven-member interim board for a new school district, should voters approve it.

That preparation could clear the way for the state Education Board to issue the legally required order for the establishment of a new district and the appointment of interim board members as soon as October, Wood said.

Wood told the state Education Board in July that the appointment of interim board members is critically important.

"The responsibilities that they are going to shoulder are really immense," Wood told the state board. "That's the reason I wanted to go ahead. I'm not trying to put the cart before the horse. I certainly don't know what that vote will reflect. If there is not a determination by voters to move forward, then I've wasted a little bit of your time."

The Education Corps has hired the Markham Group advertising and public relations firm as campaign consultant. A recent telephone survey of Jacksonville area residents done by the consultants showed a greater than 80 percent approval rate for a new district, said Gray. He half jokingly added that he was surprised it wasn't 100 percent.

No organized opposition to forming a new district has come forward.

"There is always some fear of the unknown and change," Gray said.

"We want to build support for this," he added. "A lot of people in town know we have been struggling for it. But a lot of people take it for granted, think it has already happened or don't understand what is going on. Not everyone has lived here all of their lives like some of us have."

Danny Gililland and Tom Stuthard, both former School Board members in the Pulaski County Special School District, said last week that all they hear is support for the proposed district.

Gililland said his only regret is that his neighborhood in north Pulaski County is not included in the proposed area for detachment and he won't get to vote on the matter.

"I really wanted them to take all of the area [around Cato Elementary and Northwood Middle schools] but that was the deal that was made to keep support growing," he said. "I understood."

Gililland is now working with the Sherwood Public Education Foundation to someday form a Sherwood district that would like to be detached from the Pulaski County Special district.

Stuthard of Jacksonville said he has personally supported it while he was on the board and continues to support the proposal for a Jacksonville area district.

"I guess there is speculation and talk about whether Jacksonville can pull it off," Stuthard said. "I don't know, but I support it. It's been a long time coming."

Bobby Lester of Jacksonville, a longtime former superintendent in the Pulaski County Special School District, is actively in support of the new district and the opportunities to improve the facilities and the perception about the quality of education.

"I haven't heard anyone say they are against it," Lester said.

Any new Jacksonville-area district would have an identical 40.7-mill tax rate until such time as voters vote to change it.

Polling places will be open on Sept. 16 in the affected Jacksonville area. Additionally, early voting can be done from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 9-12 and Sept. 15 at the Pulaski County Regional Building, 501 W. Markham St. Early voting also can be done from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 9-12 at two alternative locations: Jacksonville Community Center, 5 Municipal Drive in Jacksonville, and William F. Laman Library, 2801 Orange St. in North Little Rock.

The deadline for registering to vote in the annual school election is Aug. 17.

Gray said the Education Corps has involved as many as 50 people in recent planning sessions for getting the campaign underway.

"Not everybody is understanding of how the system works or how the governance of our schools work," he said. "That's why we want to get out there and explain why this is going to be so cool."

Metro on 08/04/2014