Fort Smith board ready to convene on school-tax rise

Posted: March 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

FORT SMITH — The School Board has scheduled a March 12 special meeting during which members are expected to call for a May 22 election on a school millage increase to finance an estimated $120 million in school improvements.

The seven-member board listened a week ago to a presentation from the co-chairman of a citizens committee that recommended improvements that included expanding the city’s two high schools, building new competition gymnasiums for each, establishing a career and technical education center, creating middle schools from junior high schools, increasing reliance on technology, increasing staff and improving security.

If voters approved all 15 items proposed for improvement, the estimated $120 million cost would require a millage rate increase of 6.88 mills. That would bring the millage rate for the Fort Smith School District to 43.38 mills.

Fort Smith’s current millage rate is 36.5 and has remained at that rate since 1987.

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, the state average for millage rates is 37.94. North Little Rock has one of the highest millage rates in the state at 48.3, with Bentonville and Springdale levying 46.6, Little Rock 46.4, Fayetteville 45.65, Pine Bluff, 41.7, Texarkana 38.9, Rogers 38.4 and Conway 38.1.

Jonesboro’s millage rate is less than Fort Smith’s at 33.1, according to the Department of Education figures.

A mill is a taxing unit equal to one-tenth of a cent. Each mill is charged against each dollar of assessed value and produces $1 of property tax for each $1,000 valuation.

Citizens committee co-Chairman Jason Green told board members the improvements, while costly, would benefit the school district for years to come.

“At the end of the day, we need our community to support a millage increase,” he said.

Board members expressed concern about the size of the proposed tax increase. They discussed with Superintendent Doug Brubaker ways to lower the cost, such as reducing the interest rate on bonds that would be sold to pay for the improvements or cutting back on some of the proposed staffing recommendations.

Brubaker said modifications to the committee’s proposals could reduce the millage needed to finance them from 6.88 to 5.58 mills. He told board members he would draw up possible modifications to the committee’s recommendations and the effects on the cost of the project in time for the board’s March 12 meeting.

School Board members urged Brubaker on Monday not to wait for an election to implement safety and security proposals that are included in the committee’s plan.

Board members called on the superintendent to take immediate steps aimed at improving security on Fort Smith’s school campuses after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead. Board members said they had received calls before and after the Parkland shooting from residents concerned about safety in the schools.

The school district should have undertaken security and safety improvement years ago and no more time can be wasted to make schools safer, board member Talicia Richardson said.

“We need to respond as a community,” she said. “We want that. We deserve that.”

The committee’s proposal calls for installation of secure entries, access control, exterior and building site lighting, enclosing open space elementary classrooms, alarm upgrades and additional storm shelters. The plan also calls for the addition of three school resource officers to the four already on staff for all secondary campuses.

Brubaker said providing additional school resource officers could be difficult because of the shortage of officers with the Fort Smith Police Department. Adding the needed security measures would be expensive too, according to staff. The citizens committee estimated the cost at $5.5 million.

Board member Wade Gilkey also cautioned officials to take a measured approach toward additional security measures.

“It’s difficult,” he said. “These are not prisoners. These are kids and families.”

The committee’s recommendations were part of the 10-month Vision 2023 initiative that involved 167 stakeholders to develop a strategic plan to drive continuous improvement in the district for the next five years.

The plan emphasizes career planning, equity, instruction, learning, environments/facilities, staffing, technology and wellness.

The committee recommended shifting the student population to make more room in the grade schools and reduce or eliminate the forced transfer each day of 450 students from their attendance area.

Sixth-graders would be moved from elementary school to create middle schools with seventh- and eighth-graders. The district now has junior high schools for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders.

Green told board members two-thirds of schools around the country now have middle schools instead of junior high schools.

Moving the sixth-graders to middle school would give them earlier access to innovated classes, start them on education and career planning and give them access to fine arts instruction and other skills-based programs, according to the report.

Ninth-graders would move to the high school, which the committee says will improve graduation rates, increase access to technical education opportunities and advanced placements classes and give them earlier exposure to education and career training.

Shifting sixth-graders to middle schools will improve the space availability in the elementary and middle schools, but moving ninth-graders will add 1,000 students to the two high schools, the report said.

The committee recommends building more classrooms at Northside and South-side high schools to accommodate the larger populations. The combined cost for both projects is estimated at nearly $19 million.