Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

TOP STORY >> Cabot biggest winner in state funding

Leader staff writers

Arkansas’ School Facilities Commission tentatively approved funding of hundreds of construction projects Monday, including $13 million for the Cabot School District. Its numerous building projects include , among others, $7.8 million for a new cafeteria and physical education building, as well as $4.5 million for a new elementary school to be constructed near Campground and Stagecoach roads.

This state funding is the largest part of a three-tiered program of nearly $1 billion in school improvements.
Other local districts didn’t apply for or receive the big dollars in this round of facilities funding, with Pulaski County Special School District applying for and receiving about $1.5 million, most of it earmarked for a new elementary school on the west side of the county.

The Lonoke School District re-ceived funding for projects totaling about $373,000, and Carlisle’s tentative share should be about $125,000.

The total cost of the 1,202 projects, including local districts’ share, will be about $600 million. The state’s cost for the projects tentatively approved this week will be about $250.3 million over three years, according to Doug Eaton, director of the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation. The local districts’ share is based on a wealth index.
The state pays a larger portion of the repairs and expansions for relatively poor districts, a smaller percentage for the wealthier districts.

Eaton told the facilities commission that the state’s share could decrease after the division assesses the merits of the construction projects. School districts will not receive state aid if a project is not in its facilities master plan or if it involves a non-academic building.

“Our goal right now is to do a much closer review of the projects versus the master plan,” Eaton said.
A final decision by the commission on state-supported projects is expected by July 1.

The Cabot School District received $13 million in funding, including $303,916 for the addition of four new classrooms at Northside Elementary as well as funding for several projects on the high school campus, such as $294,034 for additional parking spaces and bus drive for the new high school building; $120,506 for an outdoor amphitheater; $42,177 for demolition of old buildings after the new high school opens and $30,126 to remodel the agriculture building into an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classroom.

The commission decided not to fund a pedestrian walkway over Hwy. 89 for students of both the high school and Cabot Junior High North, saying the walkway was not a prudent use of state funding.

Beebe School District was funded $802,597 for its projects, including $617,510 for the addition of six classrooms to the front of the junior high school.

For the middle school campus in McRae, the district received $46,556 for an addition to the cafeteria; $36,546 for roof replacement and $19,936 for additional parking. Beebe Primary School was funded $41,291 to install new flooring for physical education activities and $26,581 to make doors throughout the building wheelchair accessible. Beebe High School physical education also received $14,177 to install new flooring for physical education activities.

The Pulaski County Special School District got about $1.6 million for the state’s portion of virtually everything for which the district applied.

Asked why the district applied for so little, Jerry Holder, director of plant planning for the district, said, “That was all we felt we could do with the funds we have.”

PCSSD is considered a relatively wealthy district, so the state funds only about 18 percent of qualifying projects, leaving the district to pay the other 82 percent, Holder explained.

He said the $1.5 million approved is for construction of a new elementary school for fourth and fifth graders currently served by aging Baker, Lawson and Robinson elementary schools.

Also included is $32,556 to repair roofs on three Homer Adkins Elementary School classroom buildings and the cafeteria—though the school will be converted to serve only pre-kindergarten students next year, part of the district’s Fiscal Distress Improvement Plan.

The Lonoke District was approved for $373,054 in state funds, most of it for items such as making doorways, restrooms and sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or replacing lighting, exit signs and emergency lighting.
About two thirds of the money is earmarked for the Lonoke Primary School, with $97,000 for construction of two new classrooms.

The primary school also qualified for $40,000 toward creation of 60 new parking spaces.

The old Lonoke Middle School qualified for $48,000 toward asbestos abatement and some demolition. That school will be converted into a vocational-technical center when students move into the new middle school after Christmas.

The state tentatively signed off on about $125,000 worth of improvements in the Carlisle District, with the state contributing $64,000 toward a new heating system for the elementary school and nearly $20,000 for parking lot improvement.

Among the $30,390 the state will contribute toward improvements at the Carlisle High School, the largest allocation is $7,773 toward renovation—including painting—of the classroom building and gymnasium.

This fiscal year, the commission has approved $600 million in construction related to its facilities partnership program, $300 million for its transitional program and $71 million for immediate repair needs. That puts school and state appropriations for facilities at $971 million.

The highest state share for a project approved under the partnership program is $9.8 million for a new junior high school at Marion. The lowest is $26 to make a lavatory in the Two Rivers School District accessible for those with handicaps.

The state’s share is $5 million or more on some projects, including the new high school cafeteria and physical education building at Cabot; $9.4 million on remodeling and rebuilding at Rogers High School; $8.7 million on a new high school at Trumann; $5.6 million on a new elementary school at Clarksville; $5.7 million at Dover for a primary school, and $5 million for replacement of middle school classrooms at Pine Bluff Dollarway.

Districts will be allowed to apply for assistance through the partnership program annually.

In addition to the state’s share of $250 million for the projects approved Monday, the commission since October has obligated the state to about $121 million for the other programs.

Sen. Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, said the state has about $106 million available for school facilities this year, including $50 million appropriated by the General Assembly during a special session last month.

Broadway, chairman of the Senate Academic Facilities Oversight Committee, said he expects the $106 million will be more than enough to meet the state’s obligations for this year.

The Legislature will consider another facilities appropriation during the 2007 session, he said.
Eaton told commissioners that only about 25 percent of immediate repair funding and 30 percent of transition funding has been distributed to districts. The commission rejected applications for 226 projects.

“We still feel comfortable in terms of actual dollars we’re going to have to spend between now and January,” Broadway said. “A lot of these projects, it’s about an 18-month process. You’re not going to spend a lot of money up front. A lot of the expense is going to come the next couple of years.”

Eaton said more than half of the funded projects were for a state share of less than $20,000.

Broadway said the number of projects likely would decline next year.

“We’re addressing a lot of that need that’s been sitting out there for years and years,” he said. “I suspect that next year’s applications will be substantially less than this year’s, and on down the road.”

The 2005 General Assembly created the three facilities programs after an assessment of school buildings proposed about $2 billion in facilities needs.

The immediate repair program was designed to address projects where repairs or construction was needed immediately; the transitional program covers school facility costs from Jan. 1, 2005, to June 30 of this year. The partnership program begins July 1 and continues annually.

State facilities aid is calculated based on an index that takes into account a district’s wealth and property values. Several districts, including the state’s largest in Lit-tle Rock, do not qualify for state help.

Education Commissioner Ken James, a member of the three-member facilities commission, said the state has moved quickly to improve school facilities.

The state Supreme Court was critical of the Legislature’s facilities funding in a December ruling that declared academic funding unconstitutional.

“I have a real good feeling that we’re moving in the right direction, there’s no doubt about it,” James said after Monday’s meeting.

“If you look from where the state was and where we are now, in terms of not only having a better understanding of where facility needs are, we’ve made phenomenal progress in a short period of time,” he said.

Department of Finance and Administration director Richard Weiss and Mac Dodson, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, are the two other members of the Commis-sion for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.

Stephens Media contributed to this story.