Voters OK tax extension to redo Sylvan Hills High

Posted: June 14, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Terence Howard casts his vote Tuesday in the Pulaski County Special School District millage election at the Jack Evans Senior Citizen Center in Sherwood.

Voters in a special election Tuesday approved the Pulaski County Special School District's proposal to extend a tax of 14.8 mills by another 13 years to raise more than $66 million to expand Sylvan Hills High School.

The complete but unofficial results were:

For 2,628

Against 1,337

About 66 percent of those voting supported the tax extension. In the precincts in Sherwood, where the school is located, the percentages were around 75 percent to 80 percent in favor of the plan. Just 5 percent of the 77,658 registered voters in the school district participated in the election.

The Pulaski County Election Commission will meet at 4 p.m. Thursday to evaluate provisional ballots and again at 5 p.m. June 22 to certify the vote totals.

"It's going to be a great opportunity to build an impressive high school here in Sherwood," said district Superintendent Jerry Guess. "But more than just the building, it's going to be an opportunity to serve an enormous amount of kids here in Sherwood."

He continued: "It's going to be great for these students. It's going to be great for these parents. It's going to be great for Sherwood. It's going to be great for the whole district."

School Board President Linda Remele said she was ecstatic over the voters' overwhelming approval.

"I want to say that it means we're all pulling together," she said. "We all care about Maumelle. We all care about Chenal. We all care about Sweet Home. We all care about Sherwood. We care about Oak Grove, and we see that when one part of the district is healthy, the entire district is healthy."

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Supporters of the tax extension had said growth in the district will bring in more revenue, which will help students throughout the 12,000-pupil district. No organized opposition to the tax-extension proposal surfaced.

On Tuesday, nearly 100 supporters gathered at The Greens at North Hills in Sherwood to watch the election results come in. A large television was in the center of the room, decorated with Sylvan Hills High School's blue, but the Election Commission had problems posting the results on its own website. The group later opted to follow the commission's Facebook page, which posted updates.

When the complete tally came in, many congratulated one another and cheers broke out, Remele said.

With voters' approval, the district will have the 14.8 debt-service mills of its 40.7-mill property tax through 2048 -- instead of 2035, when those tax mills were set to expire. Property owners will not pay more in their annual school taxes, but they will pay the current annual amount for a longer period of time.

The extension allows the school district to pay for general-obligation bonds of $66,490,000 to make additions to Sylvan Hills High School, which was built in 1967 for 850 students and is now bursting at the seams. The school's enrollment has jumped from 825 in 2010-11 to 1,422 in 2016-17, mostly because of new neighborhoods in the Sherwood area.

Sylvan Hills High's enrollment spurt can also be attributed in part to the detachment last July of the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District from the Pulaski County Special district. Students living within the newly reconfigured Pulaski County Special district's boundaries can no longer attend Jacksonville High or North Pulaski High schools, which were once part of the district but are now a part of the Jacksonville district.

Because of the student influx, administrators this year housed the high school's ninth-grade class at the former Northwood Middle School, 10020 Bamboo Lane, some 5 miles away. The split has required three separate lunch periods and juggling course offerings to accommodate students.

The building additions will allow Sylvan Hills High to handle up to 2,200 students. It will include an energy-efficient classroom building and media center, which would become the front of the school on Dee Jay Hudson Drive, for about 1,500 students; a 1,400-seat performing arts center, which will double as a storm shelter; a 2,200-seat arena; and a multipurpose activities center for band and athletics.

The district will then renovate the existing classrooms and auditoriums at the high school to accommodate more students.

The election came as the district is in the middle of an extensive building campaign.

The district is building a new Mills University Studies High School in southeast Pulaski County and a new Robinson Middle School in the western part of the county, both of which are set to open in August 2018.

The current Mills High will then be transformed into a middle school to replace Fuller Middle School, which will be razed.

Administrators are using district funds, coupled with state desegregation aid, to carry out the building campaign. The state desegregation aid has totaled as much as $20.6 million a year but was about $15 million this year and will be $15 million next year.

The district is completing the Mills and Fuller projects, in particular, to meet its obligations in a decades-long federal school desegregation lawsuit. The obligations include bringing up to par the Pulaski County Special district's older schools that serve higher percentages of black students compared with its newer schools, such as Chenal Elementary and Maumelle Middle and High schools, in communities that have a larger white population.

The Sylvan Hills High project is not tied to the district's goal to becoming unitary -- or released from federal court supervision -- in regard to school facilities.

"We have made a commitment across the district to improve facilities, but we've also made the commitment to new facilities at Robinson and at Mills," Guess said.

"Since 2011, we have put over $30 million into improvements into the existing facilities. That's roofs and HVAC systems and new paint and new bathrooms and new floors and new furniture and all sorts of new stuff. I hope that patrons recognize that the district is working very hard to serve all kids."

The district's School Board will meet Thursday to hear an update from its bond agent, Stephens Inc.

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.

The district is expecting to start construction on Sylvan Hills High in November and have the entire project, including the renovations, be done by summer 2019, said Derek Scott, the district's chief operations officer.

The work will continue throughout the school year, and district administrators are putting together proposals to move around students, he said, adding the board will need to approve the moves. One proposal will send sophomores to the Northwood campus in the 2018-19 school year, which will help the project finish in time, he said.

Sylvan Hills High is the district's current critical need, Guess said. Next, he said, could very well be a new high school near the new Robinson Middle School.

"PCSSD is positioned, I think, to really grow in student numbers and in the budget," he said.

"Additional revenue as a result of student growth will mean a larger budget for the district and more opportunities across the district. I think this is a critical opportunity for the district to grow and for the patrons of the district to see us all pulling together for the benefit of all the students in the district."

Metro on 06/14/2017