Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

TOP STORY>> Schools may see benefits from base growth

IN SHORT: Despite privatization of base housing and the expected influx of nearly 4,000 more people at LRAFB, districts find financial gains uncertain.

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

It’s too early to predict the effect 4,000 new Little Rock Air Force Base jobs could have on the Pulaski County Special School District or neighboring districts over the next six years, but not too early to recognize the givens and the unknowns in the equation, according to John Archetko, acting chief financial officer for the district.

Complicating any early forecasting is the unknown effect the privatization, renovation and new construction of airbase housing will have upon county and school district coffers, Archetko said last week. Privatization, begun last August, is also slated for completion over the next six years.

Pulaski County Special School District receives a certain amount of federal impact aid for children who live on the base, a lesser amount for students or whose parents work—but don’t live—on base, according to Archetko.

For the 2004 school year, the district received $483,000 in federal impact aid for about 1,000 students.

For 2005, the district projects aid of $290,800 for about 780 students.

About 230 fewer students resided on base.

“At this point all I can say is obviously the change in status there and any expansion will have some impact on our impact aid,” he said.

Lonoke Superintendent Sharron Havens said Tuesday that she didn’t know off hand how many children of Air Force Base employees currently attend her district. “We have quite a few students who live between Furlow and Jacksonville on Hwy. 89.

“I have no idea what the impact will be on our district,” she said.

Officials from the Beebe and Cabot school districts did not return calls Tuesday.

Here are some considerations, according to Archetko:

- No one is certain how many school-aged children will accompany parents if the new jobs materialize.

- Of those children, there is no way to estimate how many will attend Pulaski County Special School District schools, or how many will attend Little Rock, North Little Rock, Cabot, Beebe or other schools, public or private.

- The number of airmen living on base is unlikely to increase much, with the number of on-base housing units limited to about 1,200, so federal impact aid for most new students attending the Pulaski district schools will be figured at the reduced rate—one-fifth the compensation for students whose parents live on base.

Other districts schooling children of the expected new jobs presumably also would be compensated at the reduced rate, since none of them would be living on base.

So the amount of new impact revenue to any particular district is unknowable right now.

Another problem in predicting and preparing: “We don’t know the (age and grade) distribution,” said Archetko. “Will it require new classrooms or new teachers?

“There are a lot of interrelationships that take place,” he said. “New students could be spread across 12 grade levels. Or we may get a whole slew of 5-year-olds and need an-other kindergarten class.”

If the new jobs result in construction of new houses, the district’s property-tax base—and thus revenue—would increase.

Independent of all this, says Archetko, is the $5,400 per student minimum state aid that follows the student from district to district.

If 4,000 new employees brought say 1,000 new students, it would mean $5.4 million a year in minimum foundation aid, divided by the districts according to the number of students living in their district.

Because base housing has been sold to American Eagle Com-munities, federal impact fees should diminish, while the company will be paying county property taxes. American Eagle bought the houses last August but so far, Pulaski County Assessor Janet Troutman Ward’s office has not appraised or accessed any of them—and property taxes in Arkansas are paid a year in arrears.

Adding to the uncertainty, Ward has declined to speculate on the value of the remodeled and new houses to be built on the base, saying that would be voodoo economics.

If the properties were appraised now, the district would receive no new revenues until 2006 or 2007, Archetko calculates.