Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

TOP STORY >>General wants school built

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Little Rock Air Force Base wants to see a new elementary school at the base started much sooner than the 2009-2010 time frame currently called for in Pulaski County Special School District’s 10-year master facilities plan, Brig. Gen. Rowayne Schatz told the PCSSD board Tuesday night.

Schatz, the base commander, suggested that 50-year-old Arnold Drive Elementary, located on the base, be combined, if practical, with nearby Tolleson Elementary School in a new facility located on base property, but outside the fence.

The board has allocated $15 million for a new Arnold Drive school, which would be completed by 2011-2012 school year if the board doesn’t move up the start date.

“New facilities are needed immediately,” the general told the board.

“Airmen value education,” said Schatz, “and the educational opportunities here are not always on par with those (at previous stations).”

He said many choose to live in other school districts, send their children to private school or home-school them.

“Some must send their children to local public schools regardless of (the schools’) performance,” he said.

The general said he was starting an education campaign to bring parents, teachers and leaders together to identify programs and problems.

Schatz and several other officers were among 20 Jacksonville-area residents on hand to lobby the school board, but not all had the same agenda.

Jody Urqhart spoke for the World Class Education Organization of Jacksonville, asking board members Bill Vasquez and Danny Gililland to suspend the rules and vote during the meeting to include a new Jacksonville middle school on the 10-year plan.

Superintendent James Sharpe, announcing a special board workshop/meeting for 5 p.m. Monday in the boardroom, said he anticipated that a new Jacksonville middle school would be placed on the 10-year-plan at that time.

Bishop James Bolden, who lost his school board seat to Vasquez in September, challenged his successor to call for a vote on the matter immediately.

Jacksonville residents in attendance included Mayor Tommy Swaim, City Administrator Jay Whisker, First Arkansas Bank president Larry Wilson, Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien and state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville.

Schatz continues the campaign of his predecessor, Gen. Kip Self.

Self solicited the support of congressional and Jacksonville leaders to promote a new elementary school to replace either Arnold Drive, which is on base, or combine Arnold Drive and nearby Tolleson Elementary. District administrators signaled their intent to build a $15 million replacement last year when it appeared for the first time on the state-mandated school facilities master plan.

Changes to the existing plan, which must be submitted to the state by Feb. 1, call for construction of the new school during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school and fiscal years.

“We’re not in competition with Arnold Drive,” said Mark Wilson, a member of the World Class Education Organization of Jacksonville, which is working to get a new Jacksonville middle school built. He said anything that brings better academic facilities to the Jacksonville area is welcome.

Without inclusion on the plan, a new middle school building wouldn’t qualify for any state matching construction money.
Such a new school would cost roughly $30 million, according to Larry O’Briant, the district’s chief financial officer. Of that, the state could be expected to provide about $4 million, but only if the school is on the master facilities plan.

O’Briant said it could take about $200 million to build the necessary schools and make the necessary repairs throughout the district.

It would take an increase of 7.7 mills to raise that amount, according to Carey Smith of Stephens Public Finance Inc. He estimated that would cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 about $154 a year in additional taxes.

Sharpe and the district board are exploring the feasibility of putting such a millage increase before district voters to finance school construction and repair, perhaps as early as next August. The district already is committed to completing the $13 million Chenal Elementary School for the 2008-2009 school year. A new, $25 million Sylvan Hills Middle School is slated for construction through 2010-2011 and occupancy in 2011-2012.

The new $40 million Oak Grove High School is on the same schedule. Before adjourning, the board considered decertifying the Pulaski Association of Support Staff, but apparently decided to discuss it later, after getting more information and making sure the union president could attend the meeting.