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Crisis in the schools: consolidation might be PCSSD's only alternative if tax increase fails.

The doors were locked last week at the administrative offices of the Pulaski County Special School District.

It was spring break.

That used to mean students played while administrators pushed pencils.

Not this year.

It was decided it would cost too much to keep district offices open during spring break 1992.

It is penny-pinching time for all three school districts in Pulaski County.

The PCSSD is broke.

The North Little Rock School Board recently approved cuts of $1.7 million from its 1992-93 budget.

The Little Rock School District's superintendent is leaving July 1, and financial problems may be on the horizon for the state's largest district.

On May 5, voters will be asked to approve a millage increase for the PCSSD. Already, $3 million has been cut from the district's budget for this school year and the next.

The proposed eight-mill increase would raise about $4.4 million per year.

Without that money, the district is facing bankruptcy.

Or consolidation.

"Without it, it's doomed," Superintendent Bobby Lester says flatly.

Lester says if voters reject the tax increase, the district probably will be dissolved and merged with one or both of the county's remaining districts.

Board members in all three districts believe the North Little Rock, Little Rock and Pulaski County districts could become one large, metropolitan district.

And that prospect spurs fierce debates.

"Consolidation at this time would be almost ruination," says one Little Rock School Board member. "North Little Rock is not financially stable. Little Rock is not financially stable. You don't make something whole by taking broken pieces."

But another member of the same board says, "I have always been in favor of consolidation. That would solve a lot of the problems we're trying to solve in court."

The consolidation debate is not a new one.

Two decades ago, PCSSD Superintendent E.F. Dunn proposed a merger of the three districts. The plan didn't fly.

This time, however, Pulaski County's financial predicament could have a domino effect.

"People are aware that without the millage, the district will not survive," says Mack McAlister, a member of the Pulaski County Special School Board.

If the proposal fails, administrators might make additional budget cuts in a final attempt to stay afloat. Athletics, bus service within two miles of schools and advanced courses would be eliminated. A four-day school week might be instituted.

Board members say bankruptcy is the last resort.

Yet most reluctantly agree that the consolidation scenario is likely should the millage increase be rejected. With a lack of funds, the district would be unable to meet state educational standards. That would force the state Board of Education to order consolidation with one or more districts.

Since the PCSSD is involved in a federal desegregation suit, the federal courts would have a strong say in the matter.

From there, it becomes a guessing game.

One District

Would the Pulaski County and Little Rock districts merge, leaving the North Little Rock School District on its own?

Or would the three central Arkansas districts merge into one district with more than 55,000 students, an annual budget of more than $230 million and millions in debt?

"We control our destiny," says Ruth Tucker, president of the Pulaski County Special School Board and a teacher for 31 years. "If we merge, we throw everything into reverse gear. The court will oversee everything -- not the boards, superintendents or administrators of any district."

The depth of Pulaski County's problems became apparent last month when bonds failed to sell. The bonds were needed to finance the court-ordered construction of Crystal Hill Elementary School. Never before had a bond issue failed to sell in the district.

The public perception is that the district is on its last legs.

"So what?" one county voter asks. "What's wrong with consolidation?"

Some voters see merit in putting all of the county's public school students under one administration.

Katherine Mitchell has been a member of the Little Rock School Board for more than three years. She thinks one district would allow control of the schools to be wrested from the federal courts.

"The black-to-white ratio in North Little Rock is about 50-50," she says. "The county is predominantly white. Little Rock is predominantly black. |Consolidation~ would equalize things, get it out of the courts."

Consolidation may be the long-term solution to the area's ongoing public school crisis, says one member of the Little Rock School Board.

A parent responds that short-term solutions are needed instead.

"|Consolidation~ would mean chaos and instability for the kids while the politicians, unions and administrators picked through the leftovers to see what they could get for themselves," says Olan Asbury, who has children at Baker and Robinson elementary schools. "Over the long term, it may not make a difference. But for my 5-year-old, two years is the long term."

Former Little Rock School District Superintendent George Cannon, a recent addition to the Little Rock School Board, sees merit in consolidation.

But he thinks the timing might be wrong.

"The problem is that the Little Rock School District's finances are shaky," says Cannon, an associate professor of school administration at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "It, too, has the potential for experiencing serious financial problems down the road. Whether the district has the resources to merge and support a consolidated district is a big question."


When one financially strapped school district merges with other financially strapped school districts, what does one have?

A bigger, even more financially strapped school district?

Lester says new attendance zones, more busing and a loss of state desegregation funds for magnet and majority-to-minority students could result from a consolidated district.

Employees of the merged districts would face an uncertain future, especially those at the administrative level.

"Nobody has put into motion the vehicle to deal with consolidation if it happens," Cannon says. "Collectively, the school boards have not been doing that."

They have been thinking about it, though.

"It is more economically and educationally feasible to have one district," says Little Rock School Board member Pat Gee. "But at this time, I don't know. It's almost like a shot in the dark."

"North Little Rock fought for a long time to avoid it," says Lynn Hamilton, vice president of operations at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a member of the North Little Rock School Board. "I would certainly say there is a fear it will happen."

Hamilton does not believe consolidation is inevitable.

"I'm optimistic the county will pass the millage this time," he says. "If I had to bet, I would say they would pass it."

If Hamilton's bet pays off, here's how the PCSSD would use the money:

* One debt mill would repay bonds sold to replace 116 portable classrooms, some of which were more than 20 years old.

* One capital outlay mill would be used to purchase equipment for math, science and technology programs. A survey done by Ranchino Research Inc. of Arkadelphia showed that a large percentage of voters would approve a millage increase if math, science and technology programs were emphasized.

* Six operations mills would be used to pay bills.

The bulk of the $3 million in budget cuts will be made regardless of whether the proposal is approved.

Under state law, when districts consolidate, there is a vote for a common millage. If the vote fails, the millage of the larger district prevails. The Little Rock School District assesses 43.9 mills on its property owners. Pulaski County assesses 35.9 mills.

"Eight mills is all we're asking for," Lester says. "If we merge, people will have to pay the eight mills anyway."

Lester and board members place much of the blame for the district's problems on a 1987 court ruling that transferred 14 Pulaski County schools into the Little Rock School District.

That erased 25 percent of the PCSSD's student population and 37 percent of its tax base.

"It broke the back of the district," Lester says.

Tackling Apathy

Ruth Tucker, the president of the Pulaski County board, has spent the past 29 years teaching at Baker Elementary School on Kanis Road in Little Rock.

She grew up in rural Pulaski County, the 14th of 14 children. Only the six youngest children obtained a high school education. They were able to attend high school because of the legislative act that created the Pulaski County Special School District in 1926.

Tucker has never left the district. She has seen plenty of changes through the years, and she does not like what might be coming.

"Should we merge, the people in the county would not have any real say," Tucker says. "We have a good district ... The parents have come to realize that ... I'm seeing signs of parental interest. Before, it was just apathy."

District voters have not approved a millage increase in 14 years.

In the PCSSD's last try two years ago, 11,000 people voted, the district's highest turnout ever for a school election. Still, that represented less than 25 percent of the more than 50,000 registered voters. The proposal failed by about 800 votes.

"All of the millage elections we've lost were lost not because of overwhelming opposition, but because people have not voted," says Asbury, vice president of property management and leasing for The Hathaway Group of Little Rock.

These days, Asbury spends his free time campaigning.

He is part of a seven-member campaign steering committee established to spread the word about the upcoming vote.

Committee members realize that apathy could kill the Pulaski County Special School District.

Gee was active in the PCSSD until moving to Little Rock six years ago. While campaigning for millage increases for Pulaski County, she encountered a frightening atmosphere.

"I got everything from 'mind your own business' to 'they're just crying wolf,'" she says. "... I got nothing but hostility.

"... But you don't give up. It's not over until it's over. If you don't fight for your kids, my goodness, I don't know who you would fight for."

Lester says a grass-roots, low-budget campaign must reach more than 11,000 voters this time.

Trimble Production Studios of Little Rock is handling the television and radio commercials. Lester says the district hopes to raise $20,000 for advertising. About $11,000 has been raised so far.

Financial support is coming from teachers, parents and employees, which gives Lester hope.

"Traditionally, we have fewer than 7,000 negative votes and 5,000 to 7,000 positive votes," the superintendent says. "But we have more than 21,000 kids. We should have 42,000 parents. We must get parents to believe the district is worth saving.

"They have to do it. If they don't give us an answer, then ..."
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Title Annotation:Pulaski County Special School District
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 6, 1992
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