FAYETTEVILLE — Fayetteville school patrons will decide whether to raise their property tax rate to pay for completion of Fayetteville High School.
The district is seeking to increase property taxes by 2.75 mills to take advantage of $31.4 million available this year in tax-free bonds offered as part of the federal stimulus package. The district would build Phase 2 of the high school project with the money.
The increase, if approved, would raise the district’s tax rate to 45.65 mills. The increase in taxes would amount to $4.58 a month for an individual taxpayer on a property with an assessed value of $100,000.
There is no organized opposition to Fayetteville’s millage election, although a few yard signs were spotted Friday. The signs are printed with the wording, “Vote NO on Millage Increase Sept. 21.” Black lettering is printed on white plastic corrugated poster board, similar to “for rent” signs. There is no information on the signs indicating where they were printed or who paid for them.
Individual critics have argued that voters rejected the high school expansion last year, and the school board shouldn’t be asking for approval again. Others have said they oppose new taxes to pay for it.
School board members and a committee of citizen supporters, calling themselves Smart Fayetteville, have blanketed the city with information about the millage increase.
The increase has been endorsed by the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce and the local chapter of the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees. The district has made strong use of the social network website, Facebook, in distributing information about the millage election. Much of that effort has focused on educating patrons about the details of the millage election, said Susan Heil, president of the Fayetteville School Board.
The school district asked for a 4.9-mill increase a year ago to finance construction of a $113 million high school. The request was soundly defeated by voters nearly 2 to 1.
This year’s request has been cut almost in half. Approval of the millage increase is also approval of a $50 million financing package to complete Phase 2 of the high school.
The package includes $31.4 million in no-interest Qualified School Construction Bonds and $19 million in traditional interest-bearing bonds. The interest-free bonds will save the district an estimated $29 million over the 25-year life of the bonds.
Without the additional millage, the high school project won’t be completed in the near future and likely will be more expensive if and when the project is completed, school officials have said.
The first phase of the construction project is being paid for through district budget cuts to make payments on $45 million in low-interest bonds. The district plans to pay for the first phase with budget cuts of $2.5 million.
The Washington County clerk’s office said the district has 44,253 registered voters who are eligible to vote in the millage election.
What will the district get for the $50 million?
Students will have learning spaces for different-sized groups and flexible learning spaces to bring two or more classes together in one area, Heil said. There will be areas for students to congregate, an auxiliary gym and rehearsal space will be finished, a new library and a secure courtyard area added, she said.
The new school will be safer and more secure, she said, with only two controlled entrances, compared to the 65 doors the current school has.
“The design emphasis is on the interior spaces,” Heil said. She added that traditional academic spaces in the current facility don’t meet state size standards and don’t meet specifications for the new teaching and learning that the district adopted.
The new academic spaces that are part of Phase 2 will provide opportunities for more advanced placement courses, expanded career education and service learning programs and rehearsal spaces for fine arts.
There will even be room to add an orchestra program that parents have requested, she said.
Why is the district asking for additional millage now?
School board member Tim Hudson said there are three distinct differences between this year’s request and last year’s request.
“We’re asking for lot less,” he said.
The interest-free bonds save the district a lot of money and the internal belt-tightening to finance Phase 1 is a sign of the commitment the board and administrators made to the project.
“We’ll lose this opportunity for zero-interest bonds,” Hudson said, referring to the outcome of a defeat Sept. 21. “We didn’t expect to be coming back to the voters this soon.”
If the millage isn’t approved, the district likely will have to wait four or five years to ask voters again, and at that point construction costs will be higher and it’s unlikely interest-free bonds will be available, Hudson said.
“Voters need to find this out for themselves. This is a much better deal for taxpayers,” Hudson said. “This is the best plan we can have.”
What is the advantage of interest-free financing?
Jeff Koenig, a Fayetteville businessman who is campaigning for the millage, called the zero-interest bonds a “one-time opportunity that has never happened in the history of Fayetteville Public Schools and will not be made available next year or anytime in the foreseeable future.”
Koenig is the chairman of the Smart Fayetteville steering committee.
The school district learned it was approved for $31.4 million in Qualified School Construction Bonds at zero interest in June, Koenig said.
“We must dedicate a revenue stream by December of this year in order to pay off the principal of those bonds,” he added.
Will the Phase 2 financing package have a sunset provision?
Koenig said the millage increase will end when the bonds are paid off in 25 years. The only way the tax could continue is if the voters authorize it.
“It will go away and be subtracted from the total mills at that time,” he said. “I believe this shows exceptionally good faith by the school board to structure these bonds in this fashion."
What is the status of the LEED certification for Phase 2?
School board member Jim Halsell said the board will continue its discussion at its Sept. 23 meeting, two days after the school election.
LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a designation indicating the building has met stringent standards put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council for energy savings and other sustainable or conservation features.
To be certified at one of four levels, the building is examined by a third party against a checklist to determine if it meets energy savings and sustainability standards.
“It’s critical for everyone to understand and see the value,” Halsell said. He said there is much research available to show the benefits of air quality and good lighting on student performance.
The payback in heating and energy costs more than pays for the additional costs up front, he said.