Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

TOP STORY>> Districts to start on their facilities

IN SHORT: The new state school improvement board established emergency rules so districts can keep children “safe, warm, dry and healthy.”

By John Hofheimer
Leader staff writer

The freshly minted Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Commission on Tuesday authorized interim director Dave Floyd to begin hiring a staff and it adopted emergency rules and regulations for 120 days so that schools can begin applying for authorization and money to make critical school repairs.

Applications are due by July 1, but “we are ready, waiting on them to say, ‘Here’s the money,’” said James Warren, assistant superintendent for facilities at Pulaski County Special School District.

“We know what needs to be fixed first and foremost. They’ll have people looking over our shoulder. We need to spend on roofs. That’s where we are right now.
“The district has roofs and HVAC systems that are more than 20 years old and need to be replaced. Right now, roofs are leaking into classrooms, ruining floor and ceiling tiles,” according to Warren.

“We’re taking bids on roofs right now,” he said. “We hope those will be priority one.”

He said at least 10 schools needed new roofs at an estimated cost of more than $550,000. Those include the Jacksonville Elementary main building, Oak Grove High School band building, Oak Grove High School Gym dressing rooms, Lawson Elementary original building, Fuller Middle School cafeteria, Mill High School four-classroom pod, Adkins Elementary School media center, Sherwood Elementary School media center, Cato Elementary School original building and the Jacksonville auxiliary gym dressing rooms.

Originally the roofs were designated priority three, but the district has asked for those roofs to be designated critical, for immediate attention.

Eligible for the immediate repair program are projects including HVAC, floors, roofs, sewage systems, water supplies, asbestos abatement, fire alarm systems, exterior doors, emergency lighting and accessibility for the disabled.

As interim director Dave Floyd put it, the criteria for immediate repair would be things that interfered with keeping occupants “safe, warm, dry and healthy.”
In many cases, however, roofs and HVAC systems cannot be replaced while school is in session, said Floyd.

Including the less-pressing as well as the critical needs, it will cost an estimated $203 million to make schools in Cabot, Lonoke, Beebe and the Jacksonville area adequate, according to the $8.5 million school facilities report.

That would correct current deficiencies, make the schools educationally suitable and allow for enrollment growth and normal deterioration over the next five years.

Making adequate the Jacksonville area schools—part of the Pulaski County Special School District—will cost an estimated $118 million. The tab for Cabot Schools is $51 million, Beebe schools $21 million and Lonoke Schools $13.6 million according to estimates in the report.

Lonoke Superintendent Sharron Havens has told her board that Lonoke Schools don’t have many critical problems and won’t likely receive much money the first year. The facilities report released last year identified only $183,000 worth of critical needs at Lonoke.

Sen. Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, whose legacy may prove to be the state’s school facilities laws passed this last session, thanked the commission for the hard work it has and will do.

“We picked you for your talents,” he said. “This is an evolving process. A lot of us spent the last two years working on this. I thought this day would never come. We had no idea how to start an $8.5 million study.”

He said there would be a lot of construction dollars to help boost the state economy while protecting the state’s school children and responding to the Lake View School Adequacy rulings.

This beginning, according to Charles Knox, assistant director of the Arkansas Association of Edu-cational Administrators, should encourage school administrators.
The commission and its rules address emergency needs and provide for help in case of a catastrophe, he said, but “we’ve yet to see the rules and regulations on the partnership between the districts and the state.”

Knox said he hoped the next General Assembly would establish a permanent funding mechanism for facilities repair and construction.

Members of the three-person commission are Dr. Ken James, director of the state Education De-partment; Richard Weiss, director of the state Finance and Adminis-tration Department, and Mac Dodson, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.

The commission also voted to advertise for:

• Seven new jobs in the division, which eventually will have about 25 employees to oversee building projects in all 254 school districts. Ten of the permanent jobs will be bus inspectors that the state will cross-train to inspect school buildings. Districts that don’t keep their facilities up to state standards will be sanctioned.

• Architects and engineers who will be hired on a part-time basis to review each district’s application for state aid. Floyd estimated that about a dozen such professionals would be needed in the next 18 months.

The state and its school districts will be operating on short deadlines for both immediate state aid and 10-year building plans for each district.

“We’re going to be inundated with all these plans,” Floyd said of the need for temporary employees. “The permanent staff can’t handle that flow.”
The Legislature last month set aside $20 million for immediate and catastrophic repairs. Another $50 million is for local school building debt incurred after Jan. 1, 2005, and $40 million is to help with each district’s state-ap-proved master plan.

Districts must have applications completed for immediate-needs funding by July 1, and the 10-year master plan is due by Feb. 1, 2006.

To be eligible for the repairs, districts must provide documentation of the deficiency and of how it is an immediate hazard to the health and safety of students, teachers and others using the facility, the integrity of the facility with regard to meeting minimum health or safety standards or extraordinary deterioration.

David Robinson of the Arkansas News Bureau contributed to this article.