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The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District needs 16 more years to fulfill its plan for replacing virtually all of its schools, Charles Stein, a planning consultant to the new district, acknowledged Wednesday in federal court.

Stein, a civil engineer and retired director of the state's Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. that to finance bond debt, the new district has to pace the construction of new schools to the receipt of state building aid and to voter-approved tax-levy extensions.

The district -- which detached from the Pulaski County Special School District in July 2016 as a means to rapidly improve the condition of its school buildings -- is in the midst of constructing a new high school, a new elementary school and two multipurpose-room additions to two other elementary schools. The system has additional plans to build a new middle school and at least two new elementary buildings, with the final elementary school to be completed in the mid 2030s.

Stein testified on the district's behalf in this week's court hearing on whether the Jacksonville/North Pulaski district has met its desegregation obligations in regards to staffing and school facilities, and can be released from further federal court monitoring in those areas of its operation.

Alternatively, in the area of facilities, the district is asking that its desegregation obligations be modified to require the district to comply with its state-required, long-term facilities master plan as a way to be declared desegregated, or unitary, on facilities.

As a condition of its separation from the Pulaski County Special School District, the Jacksonville district is obligated to show compliance with the Pulaski County Special district's desegregation plan -- Plan 2000 -- in the same areas of operation in which Pulaski County Special was not in compliance at the time of the separation. Those requirements call for a show of equity in staffing and in the condition of school buildings as compared with schools such as Maumelle High and Chenal Elementary in more affluent, predominantly white parts of Pulaski County.

State Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, an attorney for the class of black students known as the Joshua intervenors, is opposing the release of the district from court supervision of its desegregation efforts. Walker pointed Wednesday to inadequate local resources in Jacksonville, the uncertain future of the state's school building aid program and the declining student enrollment in the new district as insurmountable obstacles.

"We are resting our arguments on your order requiring new schools that are equal," Walker told Marshall. "It is impossible for this district to have equal schools because they don't have enough money. If they have to use their own resources, then they are ultimately going to be placed in fiscal distress and the state will take them over for conditions that the state created."

The state was a participant in the 2014 agreement that allowed for the separation of the Jacksonville North Pulaski and Pulaski Special districts, but is no longer a party in the ongoing 35-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit.

Stein testified that the Jacksonville district qualified in the 2017-19 funding cycle for a state contribution of 47 percent of the allowable building costs, but that state share is capped at $175 per square foot for construction and to state standards for academic spaces.

The state Partnership Program for facilities generated $20 million for the new $70 million high school, $6.5 million for the $16.2 million elementary school and almost $739,000 for each of the multi purpose rooms at Bayou Meto and Murrell Taylor elementary schools, one of which will cost $1.2 million and the other $1.5 million to build.

"That's not 47 percent," Walker said about the state's share of the costs.

Stein said the high school that will open in August 2019 will be about $225 per square foot.

Additionally, he said the district exceeded state standards for some of the features of the school, such as music rooms. The state funding also doesn't cover the cost of space that doesn't have an academic purpose. Those all become the financial responsibility of the district, he said.

"More school means less of a net contribution from the state to get the project done," the judge observed.

Walker said the premise at the time of the Jacksonville detachment was that the new district would receive a large contribution from the state.

But the state "engineered" the detachment, he said, knowing that district would likely have a declining enrollment -- making it eligible for less state building aid -- and therefore the state's financial commitments would be smaller than generally anticipated.

He noted that at the time of the detachment agreement, Stein headed the state's school facilities division. He reported to state Education Commissioner Tony Wood, who became Jacksonville's first superintendent, and Scott Richardson was an assistant attorney general who participated in the settlement negotiations. Richardson is now the Jacksonville district's attorney in the desegregation case.

Richardson and Stein presented data to the judge showing a projected 15 percent increase in student enrollment over 10 years. A student increase has the potential to translate into greater state building aid if the assessed value of property remains stable. They based the enrollment projection on recent enrollment growth in nearby Cabot, Vilonia and Mayflower.

Walker, however, said that white students are likely to exit the Jacksonville district as its enrollment becomes majority black. Fewer students and the same assessed value will lessen the district's eligibility for state building aid, he said. The district will become unable to support itself.

Marshall asked Stein if he agreed with Walker's "doomsday scenario."

"Not necessarily," Stein said.

Stein said he is serving on a state facilities advisory panel that is seeking ways -- at the request of Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- to reduce the building program costs that spiked to almost $250 million during the last 2017-19 funding cycle. The committee is specifically looking for strategies to help districts with declining enrollments with their buildings.

Metro on 02/08/2018

Print Headline: District's school plan a 16-year endeavor, consultant testifies

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