The state-appointed superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District on Monday outlined a $220 million plan for equalizing the conditions of school buildings across the district, a key issue in its efforts to be declared unitary, or integrated.
Superintendent Jerry Guess made the presentation to the state Board of Education during a meeting in which the board also heard from activist groups calling for changes in school policies on HIV.
Arkansas’ request to be released from the desegregation settlement with the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts is scheduled to go to trial Dec. 9. Of the three districts, only the Pulaski County Special district has not been declared unitary and released from federal court supervision of its desegregation efforts.
Guess, who was appointed superintendent in 2011 after the state took over the financially troubled Pulaski County Special district, told the Board of Education on Monday that one of the biggest challenges in achieving unitary status is addressing the disparity in facilities across the massive 730-square-mile district.
"How do you reconcile the disparities in the facilities in the district when you have brand new high schools of great beauty and worth and use and then you have facilities in the district that are 60 years old or older and have not been taken care of and updated?" he said.
Guess said he will propose construction of a new Robinson High School and a new Mills High School; renovation of the existing Robinson and Mills high schools as middle schools; and a major addition to and renovation of Sylvan Hills High School.
He estimated the costs of the new high schools at about $50 million each, the Slyvan Hills renovation at about $15 million and the other renovation projects at about $7.5 million each. He also said he will propose spending $40 million on improvements to elementary schools, $20 million on improvements to extracurricular facilities, $27 million on new equipment and $2.5 million on demolition.
Jacksonville’s school buildings are not part of the plan because of efforts by that community to start its own district, which the Pulaski County Special district supports. Guess said Maumelle’s school buildings are currently in excellent condition.
The district could pay for construction projects in part with a millage increase that, if approved by voters, would generate about $170 million while still keeping property taxes lower than those in the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts, Guess said. He also said the district would need some state help.
Board member Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville asked Guess what the rationale was for keeping the district so large.
"I think the fact that the district was successful 30 years ago, was remarkably successful 30 years ago, (suggests) that the district can once again be successful managing this area," Guess said.
Also Monday, members of the groups Campaign to End AIDS and the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas pushed for policy changes following an incident in the Pea Ridge School District.
Kari Coffman of Barling, a member of Campaign to End AIDS, told the board that in September three Pea Ridge students, two of them disabled, were temporarily barred from attending school after administrators came to suspect that they might be HIV-positive.
Coffman said the students were told they could not attend school or play football until they provided documentation of their HIV status. After test results were provided to the district, the students were allowed to return to school, she said.
Pea Ridge Superintendent Rick Neal did not immediately return a call Monday seeking comment.
Coffman said the district unfairly discriminated against the students and furthered misapprehensions about HIV, which cannot be transmitted through casual contact.
"(Neal) sent the wrong message. He sent fear back into people’s hearts and minds about HIV," she said.
A lawyer for the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas said later that the center is looking into its options but to date has not filed a lawsuit over the incident.