Pulaski County Special School District leaders on Tuesday grappled with the disparate problems of what to do with a fire-ravaged school campus located in another district and the collection of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid student meal costs.
The School Board for the 12,000-student district went for some interim steps:
• Authorized Superintendent Charles McNulty to explore ways to determine the value of the former Jacksonville Elementary School as a starting place for negotiating the property’s future with the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District .
• Await a recommendation from district leaders next month on a “get aggressive” policy regarding school meal debts that are nearing $100,000 for the first quarter of this school year and could be as much as $600,000 by the end of the school year.
The Pulaski Special district owns the approximately four acres at the intersection of South Oak and East Main streets in Jacksonville — home to the old Jacksonville Elementary — but had several years ago vacated the building and leased it to the city of Jacksonville for $1 a year for 99 years.
That occurred before the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District was carved out of the Pulaski County Special District. The Pulaski Special district transferred the Jacksonville area schools to the new district but retained the South Oak/East Main property that was under lease to the city.
A 2020 fire destroyed at least one of the buildings on the campus. The March 31 tornado in central Arkansas further damaged the site.
McNulty and School Board President Stephen Delaney said the city of Jacksonville was responsible for the upkeep and insurance of the property and to ultimately return the site to the Pulaski Special district in the condition in which it was initially leased.
McNulty said there is no insurance on the property and the Pulaski Special district is not interested in paying for demolition of the buildings.
Delaney said determining the value of the property “a framework” for moving forward to resolve the matter.
Janice Warren, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services, told the board that large numbers of students and their families are not paying for school meals. The district is prevented by Act 428 of 2019 from refusing meals to those students or providing alternate, less expensive meals to those who owe for meals.
Warren told the board that the problem is on track to cost the district as much as $600,000 by the end of this school year.
The district has worked to get parents to complete paperwork for obtaining free school meals for their students. The district has also begun in recent days to text the parents about the school meal debts and that has productive, Warren said, prompting some 500 phone calls from the parents.
“But that is not enough,” she said, adding that the district is conferring with other districts on strategies and will return to the board later this year with plans for the meal fee collections.
The issue of the unpaid meals comes in the wake of two school years in which no students had to pay for school meals. The free meals were covered with federal covid-19 relief money.