An attorney for the Pulaski County Special School District said Monday that neither a federal court hearing nor an independent facilities expert is necessary to ensure that construction of two new schools is "equal."
"Generally, the PCSSD believes that monies should not be diverted from the brick and mortar issues to add another level of supervision to projects which can be, in the final analysis, measured by their overall and relative costs as compared one to the other," Sam Jones told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in a long-running federal school desegregation lawsuit.
Last month, attorneys for the black students known as the Joshua intervenors asked Marshall to appoint an expert to evaluate the quality and equity of a new Mills High in the southeast section of the district versus a new Robinson Middle School in the more affluent western, predominantly white section of the Pulaski County Special district.
The Joshua intervenors' request came after the district reported that it had fallen millions of dollars short of its commitment in 2015 to the federal court to spend $55 million on the new Mills High and the relocation of Fuller Middle School to the current Mills campus.
District leaders have since offered assurances that the $55 million commitment will be met -- but they also said that doing so will put the district $20 million over its total $80 million construction plan for Mills/Fuller and Robinson.
The Pulaski County Special district, as a remaining party in the 35-year-old federal desegregation lawsuit, is subject to court monitoring of its desegregation efforts. Those efforts include equalizing older campuses -- such as Mills and Fuller that serve areas with relatively high percentages of black and/or low-income families with the district's much newer schools in affluent and predominantly white areas such as Maumelle and the Chenal Valley area of west Little Rock.
The team of attorneys for the intervenors -- headed by Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock -- also asked Marshall last month to direct the district to provide plans for replacing College Station and Harris elementary schools, which are older buildings in predominantly black communities, and to schedule a court hearing on the building issues in the 12,000-student district.
"As the facilities plan referenced several times by Joshua indicates, and as has been represented on the record in open Court, PCSSD has no current plans to replace either or both College Station and Harris," Jones wrote to the judge on Monday.
As for a hearing: "The PCSSD does not believe a hearing is necessary or would be a useful use of the Court's and the parties' time,"Jones responded. "Rather, a simple admonition from this Court (a reminder if you will) that the Court expects compliance with its orders, including those regarding construction of the Mills projects, is sufficient Court intervention at this time to secure compliance with those orders."
Jones told Marshall in September that district leaders were investigating possible disparities between the Mills High and Robinson campus construction projects and the smaller than promised $55 million budget for the building of Mills High and relocation of Fuller Middle School.
At issue since then has been whether spending and features at the Robinson site are superior to those of Mills and in violation of the district's commitment to the federal court. What was once $55 million for Mills and Fuller -- and with no plans for Robinson -- became, over time, a budgeted $80 million for Mills/Fuller and Robinson.
The judge in September asked for further reports on the matter from school district leaders, the Joshua intervenors and from Margie Powell, the court's expert in the case.
Powell, earlier this month, focused in particular on the newly completed multipurpose indoor activity facilities at Mills and Robinson, saying they "are not equal" and that someone should have stepped in to correct the "glaring inequities."
She cited numerous instances of smaller square footage at the Mills facility as well as a lack of landscaping, lack of permanent and separate men and women's bathroom facilities on the practice field, and diminished and more distant parking.
"The floor in the team room at Robinson slants up theater-styled, has padded chairs with a built-in desk top feature, [and] a large flat screen TV that is wall mounted and has internet access," Powell wrote. "The team room at Mills has a flat classroom styled floor plan, a desk top TV and what can best be described as 'glorified folding chairs.'"
She also said that "while the impetus behind the changes in design and downsizing of the Mills project may never be known, there was an amazing lack of sensitivity for the people of the southeast quadrant. "
Powell said that her recent conversations with district leaders convinced her that they are trying "to make things right."
Jones, in his 11-page response to both the Joshua intervenors and Powell reports, said that the "measure of equality as regards facilities should not be dependent upon incremental mathematical analyses," such as the square footage of the weight rooms at the two facilities.
"Rather, the projects as a whole should be evaluated. They are not a function of adding and subtracting square footage here, differences in wall finishes there and similar examples. Again, the analysis should be the entirety of one project when compared to another by a comprehensive common sense measure," he said, also noting that the district intends to spend at least $55 million at Mills and $45 million at Robinson.
Jones further pointed to terrain and topography of the property for the different campuses as a factor in the construction and design. He noted that the Joshua intervenors have visited Mills to observe construction three times in September 2016 and again in February 2017.
"In short, the two properties are different but the District owns them both and to stretch dollars further at both Mills and Robinson, the District dealt practically with the unique challenges or opportunities that each site presented.
"Again, the District believes that when all is said and done the two projects will be, by all reasonable measures, adjudicated to be equal," Jones wrote.
In response to discrete points in Powell's report, Jones told Marshall that:
• District officials elected to wait until spring to plant Bermuda sod, the multipurpose facility was never designed to be two stories and the second story at Robinson's facility will not be finished for the time being.
• The "glorified folding chairs" at Mills were temporary and permanent replacements have arrived and will be installed "after the back row of the team room is elevated" to make it similar to Robinson's.
• An athletic director's office will be added within the new Mills High School and additional adequate paved parking is available at Mills "proximate" to the football field.
• Portable bathrooms are no longer used now that public and student restrooms are operating in the multipurpose facilities.
• The School Board voted last week to add $1.29 million to its Baldwin & Shell $37.7 million construction contract for an athletic plaza, football stadium ticket booth, eight windows for the multipurpose activity center, interior lettering and graphics, electric drapery and stage rigging, and a $377,000 contingency fund -- all for Mills.
The building contract does not include design costs, furniture and equipment that are to come for the new Mills. That is projected to be about $8.3 million, and will include lockers, kitchen equipment, auditorium furnishings, bleachers, career education equipment, technology, and furniture, according to an exhibit Jones attached to his report.
In response to requests from the Joshua intervenors, Jones wrote to the judge that there is no current assertion that quality is being sacrificed at either the Mills or Robinson projects but whether the projects are "equal."
Elaborating on the intervenors' request for a facilities expert, Jones said it is doubtful that an expert could make useful judgments on appropriate remedial steps.
Jones said that Roy Horsey, vice president of the Central Arkansas Division of Baldwin & Shell Construction, "functions as a suitable surrogate for a court appointed expert" as he is assigned to both the Mills and Robinson projects and that it is Horsey's responsibility to communicate with the district on the budget and schedule for the projects.
A Section on 11/21/2017
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