Leader Blues

Saturday, February 02, 2008

TOP STORY >> Cabot students told to vote

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

If they had it to do over again, Cabot School District administrators would not call voting-age students together to discuss the district’s pending request for an increase of 3.9 mills, slated for the March 11 ballot, Superintendent Tony Thurman said Thursday.

High School Principal Zanya Clarkson did pull together the voting age students as part of the school’s voter registration drive, he said.In the process, she caught the attention of Lonoke County Quorum Court Member Lynn Clarke, who said the assembly seemed improper if not illegal.

“In no way did we intend to be disrespectful or underhanded,” said the superintendent.

“In hindsight, it was bad timing,” Thurman said. He said the students asked questions, more interested in the proposed locations of new buildings.

Thurman said there could have been between 100 and 150 students at the assembly, which, he stressed, was held during an advisory period, not a classroom period.

“I don’t know if they knew in advance what the meeting was about,” Thurman said. “They were not encouraged to work for the millage, but maybe to vote for it. We won’t bring up issue again.”

Thurman said the assembly did not violate district policy or guidelines and that the district has a history of promoting voter registration. In fact it will host registration from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Central Administrative Offices Building at 602 North Lincoln Street in Cabot.

Clarke said this week that she thought it was wrong for administrators to suggest to a captive audience of high school students how they should vote on any issue.

Clarke, the wife of Lonoke County Election Commissioner Larry Clarke, said that after learning of the assembly, she consulted Arkansas code. She could not find a law against telling students how to vote, if that’s what happened.

But as a county official and as a parent of teenagers in the Cabot District, she was concerned by the action.
She also checked with the state Education Department.

“It probably violates some ethical standards, but it’s not under the (our) authority,” according to Julie Thompson, Education Department spokesman.

Clarke said the Ethics Commission told her it had more complaints and questions than usual this year about schools and millages.

Bentonville sent letters home with voting-age students encouraging them to vote for a millage increase, according to one teacher. The Cabot School District’s10-year facilities master plan consists of $50.5 million in projects. Of that total, $27.7 million is expected from the state and Cabot would have to pay $22.8 million.

If the increase were approved, Cabot’s total millage would be 39.9 mills, generating the $22.8 million needed for the district’s share.

Thurman says the increase is necessary to finance planned capital projects. Under the proposed millage increase, a homeowner would pay an additional $78 a year on a home valued at $100,000 and $156 a year on a home valued at $200,000.

The projects include a $13 million health, physical education and recreation complex at the high school attached to a new cafeteria/student center; $11.3 million for a new elementary school; $9.04 million to install heating, ventilation and air conditioning units in 10 kitchens in the district as well as HVAC systems at Southside Elementary, Junior High South and Central Elementary; $7.3 million to add 40 classrooms at the high school to accommodate future growth; $3.66 million for renovations to the high school auditorium; $3.6 million to renovate the high school S-building; $2.27 million to upgrade the science labs at Junior High South to accommodate growth in the next four years; $1.86 million for a new roof and HVAC system at Eastside Elementary School; $1.77 million for HVAC systems in the physical-education facilities at eight campuses; and $1.82 million to construct a new facility for the district’s charter school.