Millage vote on unifying central Arkansas school nears

Posted: June 11, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

This artist’s rendering shows the proposal for a new Sylvan Hills High School, which would be built if the extension of a 14.8-mill tax levy is approved by voters in the Pulaski County Special School District in Tuesday’s special election.

Sylvan Hills High School in the Pulaski County Special School District was a divided campus this school year, with 10th through 12th grades at one location in Sherwood and the ninth grade 5 miles away in the Gravel Ridge community.

Pulaski County Special School District voting locations

Reuniting the four grades on a campus expanded to accommodate as many as 2,200 students is the focus of a tax plan going to Pulaski County Special School District voters in a special election Tuesday.

District leaders have proposed extending the levy of 14.8 mills of the district's 40.7-mill property tax by 13 years -- from 2035 when the tax mills are now due to expire -- to 2048. Property owners would not see their annual school taxes increase if voters pass the measure, but they would pay the current yearly amount for longer.

The extended 14.8-mill tax levy would enable the district to finance general obligation bonds of $66,490,000, the money from which would be used to add a multistory classroom building, cafeteria, auditorium, arena and multipurpose activity center at the Sylvan Hills High School complex on Sherwood's Bear Paw Drive.

Early voting, which started last week at two sites, will resume Monday, but only in the Pulaski County Regional Building, at 501 W. Markham St., Little Rock. The hours for early voting are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Polling places will be open Tuesday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Sherwood and throughout the far-flung Pulaski County Special district, including in Maumelle, far west Little Rock, part of Shannon Hills and southeast Pulaski County.

Superintendent Jerry Guess said the current arrangement of a main campus for 10th-through-12th grades and a separate ninth-grade location -- in the former Northwood Middle School, at 10020 Bamboo Lane -- for a total of nearly 1,450 students this year, was "very inefficient" and "a tremendous disadvantage."

The split schools require juggling course offerings, he said, and result in duplicate staffing and extra school bus transportation.

"We have to run buses for the kids going to the ninth grade, and then we have to run them back and forth if they are in an extracurricular activity that is offered at the high school campus," Guess said last week. "It costs more money to do. But it is not just about the money -- it's also about offering kids the opportunities that they want and being sure that we serve them."

The Committee to Continue Progress for Our Schools, made up of representatives from across the school district, has raised $32,250 to support the campaign for the tax extension, according to pre-election campaign contribution reports for the period ending June 3.

No organized opposition to the proposed tax extension has surfaced.

Sylvan Hills High School's total enrollment has grown from 825 in 2010-11, to 975 in 2014-15, to 1,265 in 2015-16 and 1,422 in 2016-17, according to Arkansas Department of Education data. The school was built in 1967 to accommodate 850 students.

The recent enrollment growth is largely because of new neighborhoods in the Sherwood area, but it's also fueled by the detachment last July of the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District from the Pulaski County Special District.

Students who live within the reconfigured Pulaski County Special District boundaries can no longer be assigned to Jacksonville High or North Pulaski High schools that were once part of the Pulaski County Special district but now are in the new Jacksonville district.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special district called for the special election to ensure that the planned new construction can be completed by August 2019. If the tax extension passes, Guess has said that construction would begin in December or January.

Derek Scott, the district's executive director of operations, said the expansion -- designed by WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock -- includes an energy-efficient classroom building and media center for about 1,500 students. That building would become the front of the school and would face Dee Jay Hudson Drive. There would also be a 1,400-seat performing arts center/storm shelter, a 2,200-seat arena, and a multipurpose activities center for band and athletic practices.

Eventually, the existing Sylvan Hills High classroom and auditorium spaces would be renovated to increase the campus capacity to 2,200 students, Scott said. He also anticipates repurposing the ninth-grade campus for other school-related activities in the growing area of Pulaski County.

Tuesday's special election comes at a time when the Pulaski County Special district is in the midst of an extensive building program.

A new Mills University Studies High School on Dixon Road in southeast Pulaski County is under construction and scheduled to open in August 2018. The existing Mills campus will then be converted into a middle school to replace the existing Fuller Middle School, which will be demolished.

The Pulaski County Special district is also building a new Robinson Middle School in the western part of the county for opening in August 2018. The projects are being done with district funds in combination with state desegregation aid that has been as much as $20.6 million a year but was about $15 million this school year and will be $15 million for the coming year.

The Mills and Fuller projects, in particular, are being done to meet the Pulaski County Special district's obligations in a long-running federal school desegregation lawsuit. Those obligations include making the district's older schools that serve high percentages of black students comparable with its newer schools -- Chenal Elementary, Maumelle Middle and High Schools, and Sylvan Hills Middle School -- in more affluent communities that have larger white populations.

While the Sherwood area is the focus of the proposed tax plan, voters throughout the 12,000-student district will have a say on the proposed tax extension.

Historically, tax measures -- specifically tax increases -- have been difficult to pass in the Pulaski County Special district. As recently as May 2015, voters in the district soundly defeated a proposed 5.6-mill property tax increase to finance a $221 million districtwide building plan.

Darren O'Quinn, a member of the Committee to Continue Progress for Our Schools, lives and works in west Little Rock. He said he has seen an influx of students in his area because of the newer Chenal Elementary and the soon-to-open Robinson Middle School. He has no qualms about supporting the tax extension proposal.

"In this particular instance we aren't going to get the immediate benefits of a new building in this zone," O'Quinn said. "But Sylvan Hills really needs it, and that will start the same process [of growth] there that you have seen at Robinson, you've seen at Maumelle High School and I think you will see at Mills High.

"It benefits the whole district," O'Quinn said about building improvements. "It brings more students into the district. It increases property values for everyone to have good schools around the county. And, with more students comes more money and all of that goes to the general fund. It doesn't stay in Sylvan Hills or Chenal or Mills or Maumelle. It goes to the strength of the whole district."

The campaign for the proposed tax extension has attracted contributions from some of central Arkansas' largest and prominent organizations.

Linda George, a retired elementary principal and co-chairman of the campaign committee, said the business leaders recognize that education in the area must be stable if they want the economy and cities to grow.

The Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. donated $5,000 to the campaign. Fifty for the Future, a nonprofit organization of Little Rock area business leaders, also has donated $5,000.

Some of the other largest contributors are Brockington Partners LLC, $2,000; Sherwood Chamber of Commerce, $2,000; Sherwood Development $3,000; Witsell, Evans & Rasco, $3,000; Mitchell, Williams Selig, Gates & Woodward law firm, $2,000; National Insurance Benefits Coordinators, $1,000; Michele Phillips Realty, $1,000; Allen Roberts, an attorney from Camden, $1,000; Danny and Lynda Gililland, $1,000; Salon Professional Academy, $1,000; JTS Financial, $1,000.

Other contributors of smaller amounts include Guess; Paul Brewer, the district's executive director of human resources; Sherwood Mayor Virginia Young; and Sherwood Alderman Beverly Williams.

New bonds issued based on the extended 14.8 mills would cause the district's current debt payment of $8.4 million to increase to a projected $10.1 million in 2018, $15.2 million in 2019 and then to more than $16.3 million each year from 2020-32. The projected annual amounts would decline to $15.9 million each year from 2033-35, and then to $6.4 million each year from 2036-48.

Tuesday's vote will be the only Pulaski County School District election in 2017. Because all seven members of the School Board were elected in November, there will be no election for school board members this year.

The special tax election this month will meet the district's constitutional obligation to hold an annual vote on the district's property-tax rate.

Metro on 06/11/2017