29 Jul Jonathan Cartu Report: New schools’ athletic sites not equal
Janice Warren, a Pulaski County Special School District assistant superintendent, recalled Tuesday in federal court her feelings of concern and discouragement upon seeing a video of athletic facilities at the new Mills High and Robinson middle schools.
“What I saw was not what I was told we would have,” said Warren, who is assistant superintendent of equity and pupil services but was the district’s interim superintendent at the time of the 2017 video of the Mills’ indoor practice facility and the more spacious practice facility at Robinson Middle School.
She said she feared that the construction differences in the two new campuses — both of which opened to students in the 2018-19 school year — put the district at risk of violating obligations in its federal court-approved desegregation plan and related documents. Plan 2000 calls, in part, for the district to have “a plan so that existing school facilities are clean, safe, attractive and equal.”
Testifying in a hearing on whether the Pulaski County Special district has met its desegregation requirements and can be released from federal court oversight of its operations, Warren said Mills High in the district’s racially diverse southeast section did not have the same “wow factor” as Robinson Middle School in the more affluent and predominantly white west section of the district or the greatly expanded Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood.
“When you walk up to the Mills facility, it is a nice facility. When you walk in, the facility is very nice and you can be proud of it,” Warren said in response to questions from Austin Porter Jr., an attorney for black students known as the McClendon intervenors.
“When you drive up to the Robinson and Sylvan Hills High facilities, they resemble university facilities,” she said. “The grandeur is there.”
U.S. Chief District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. is conducting the hearing this month on whether the district has met its obligations on student achievement, student discipline, condition of school buildings and self-monitoring of desegregation efforts.
Representatives of the 12,000-student district have said in the hearing that started July 14 that the district has in good faith substantially met the requirements, including the construction of a $50 million Mills High and the $5 million transformation of the old Mills into the Mills Middle School.
The McClendon intervenors contend that the district has not met its commitments and should not be released from court monitoring in the 37-year-old lawsuit.
Warren on Tuesday blamed Derek Scott, the district’s former executive director of operations, for the differences in the Mills and Robinson schools, as building renderings shown to the district’s leadership did not match the actual construction. She told Porter that she could not trust Scott and that he was a detriment to the district, especially to the district’s Black students. She said she “assisted” Scott in his 2017 decision to resign.
Others who testified Tuesday about facilities were Duane Clayton, principal of Mills High; Curtis Johnson, the district’s executive director of operations; Earnest Duckery, architect and project manager at WD&D Architects of Little Rock; and state Rep. Joy Springer, D-Little Rock, a paralegal and longtime school desegregation monitor on behalf of the black student intervenors.
In response to questions from Porter, Duckery said the 171,000-square-foot plan for Mills High was scaled back to 153,000 square feet to get to a $37.4 million price tag.
Others in the hearing presented data earlier showing that more than $50 million will ultimately be spent for Mills, including architect fees, furnishings, modifications to hallway walls and new janitorial workspaces.
Duckery said changes made to the original design of the school included reducing the square footage for classrooms to meet state minimum requirements for class sizes. Many of the window features, including skylights, to add natural light to the building were removed from the design. A second staircase in the rotunda was eliminated and decorative lighting fixtures were scaled back, Duckery said. The school capacity was reduced from 750 to 700.
Jay Bequette, an attorney for the district, asked Duckery if scaling back a school design, or value engineering, is common, and whether Duckery’s architecture firm is proud of the Mills school project.
Duckery replied affirmatively to both questions, also noting that Mills was challenging to design and build in a way that didn’t require converting swamp land into usable space and enabled Fuller Middle School on the same site to operate unhindered by the Mills construction until it was time for it to be demolished.
Clayton, Mills High principal for the past six years, told the judge that “strategic scheduling” had to be done at the new Mills campus. Unlike the situation at the more spacious old Mills campus — teachers at the new campus have to share classroom space.
The school’s family consumer science course had to meet in the school’s seminar room that is more typically used for special events and programs. The school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or ROTC program met in a school choir room.
Pulaski County desegregation case
The competition gymnasium that seats about 900 is smaller than the school’s old gym that housed recent conference championship basketball teams, Clayton said. Mills was the host of a recent tournament but did that at the larger Maumelle High gym, Clayton said.
Clayton said he likes the aesthetics of the new school, and the concert hall “is second to none.” He also is appreciative of the natural light in the building.
Springer presented documents showing how representatives of the McClendon intervenors raised concerns about the district’s buildings with district leaders over time.
Johnson, the district’s operations director, told Porter that the College Station and Harris elementary schools, which serve communities with relatively high percentages of black students, can be made comparable with other schools only by bulldozing them and building anew.
Also on Tuesday, Warren, Springer and Sherman Whitfield, who is director of pupil services for the school district, were called by the attorney for the McClendon intervenors to testify about student discipline practices. Warren and Whitfield had testified earlier in the hearing on the topic by the district attorneys.
Whitfield testified about a first semester report from the 2019-20 school year that showed that 67% of suspensions in the first semester were of Black students, who made up 46% of the district enrollment. A 21-point difference.
On discipline, Warren defended the district’s work in addressing the racial gap in the application of student discipline, saying that the district initiatives that have been described over the course of the hearing “are the plan.”
The hearing is set to resume at 8:30 a.m. today, with completion set for Friday.