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Central Arkansas school board takes step in replacing 2 facilities

by Cynthia Howell | May 4, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School Board moved forward Monday with plans to replace Murrell Taylor and Bayou Meto elementary schools despite uncertainties about campus locations and a possible court battle on funding.

The building issues were addressed at a meeting in which the board -- on the recommendation of incoming Superintendent Jeremy Owoh -- voted unanimously to hire Janice Walker and Bobby E. Lester as assistant superintendents. Owoh will assume the superintendent's role in July.

The board voted 6-1 to stay with the WER Architecture/Planners and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. for the building of replacement campuses for Bayou Meto and Murrell Taylor elementaries, which have been promised as a resolution to a long-running federal school desegregation lawsuit.

The two firms are the same companies that the district has employed for four other new schools, including the recently completed Bobby G. Lester Elementary and Jacksonville High schools. The firms are currently in slightly different stages of finishing a new Jacksonville Middle School that will open to students in August and a new Jacksonville Elementary that will replace Pinewood and Warren Dupree elementaries.

The selection of the firms comes at a time when the district and the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation are in dispute over the state's contribution to the construction costs.

The facilities division in October 2019 denied the request for state aid for construction of a new Murrell Taylor, saying the school didn't qualify to be replaced in large part because the 1981-built campus is less than 50 years old and in good condition. The division did, however, approve funding to help expand Taylor to accommodate a larger enrollment.

The agency approved state aid to replace the district's Bayou Meto Elementary -- but it subtracted from the funding plan any state money for a multipurpose facility at a new school site as there is a new multipurpose room at the existing school. District representatives have argued that they are unable to build a new Bayou Meto at the existing site and that it would not be practical to move children between two locations to use the multipurpose room.

The facilities division and its commission have approved for 2022-23 a state contribution of $5.14 million for the Bayou Meto replacement school and about $1.8 million for Murrell Taylor.

Superintendent Bryan Duffie told the School Board on Monday that the district has exhausted its appeals to the state on the funding, and that the district's attorney, Scott Richardson, is preparing a motion to submit in the desegregation lawsuit to attempt to compel a greater state contribution to the court-ordered construction of the schools.

The 3,800-student Jacksonville district is required by federal court order in the desegregation case to report to the court by every July 1 on its progress in replacing all of its schools as a way to make the condition of the school buildings equal -- one of the requirements for the district to be declared unitary and released from further federal court supervision.

U.S. District Chief Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in the lawsuit, in a February 2020 court order acknowledged the ongoing dispute between the district and the state.

"The Court shares the concerns of JNPSD and Intervenors about erosion of State partnership funding," Marshall wrote. "As the Court has noted before, the State's ongoing and substantial participation is an essential ingredient in JNPSD's mandated follow-through on unitary facilities. JNPSD must keep the Court updated on this developing issue."

Marshall had ruled in September 2018 that the Jacksonville district will be entitled to be released from federal court supervision of its school buildings by 2026 if it follows through on its commitments.

"JNPSD's plan is extraordinary," Marshall wrote in that 2018 order. "Within approximately a dozen years of its creation, the District will have built a new high school, a new middle school, and four new elementary schools. JNPSD's good faith is demonstrated by the plan itself and the progress already made."

The School Board agreed Monday to submit an "early start" application to the state to begin plans for the two campuses, a process that will enable to district to eventually seek state reimbursement of funds spent for that early work.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski board's approval of Walker and Bobby E. Lester as assistant superintendents fills vacancies created by the resignation of Gregory Hodges earlier this school year and the upcoming June 30 resignation of Tiffany Bone, who has been hired by the Fort Smith School District.

Walker and Lester have a history in the Jacksonville-area schools.

Walker is currently the principal of Bobby G. Lester Elementary. Bobby E. Lester is director of federal programs for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and a former principal in Jacksonville-area schools.

The district's Lester Elementary is named after Bobby E. Lester's father, who served as the district's first superintendent on an interim basis.

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