Leader Blues

Saturday, February 16, 2008

TOP STORY > >District loses students and funding for new schools

Leader senior staff writer

Proposed construction of a new middle school and elementary school in Jacksonville already depends upon voter approval of a millage increase, but declining Pulaski County Special School District enrollment has cut so deeply into annual revenues that even the more imminent construction of the new Sylvan Hills middle school and Oak Grove high school could be threatened, according to District Chief Financial Officer Larry O’Briant.

O’Briant said enrollment loss this year cost the district about $1.6 million and decline in the number of minority-to-majority transfers cost another $1.7 million.

That’s $3.3 million a year the district could have used to help pay for the new $25 million Sylvan Hills middle school, still in the engineering stages, and the $40 million Oak Grove high school, according to O’Briant. A vote of the school board would be sufficient to finance that construction with second-lien bonds, but O’Briant estimated the annual note on that construction would be about $4 million to $5 million, and with those declines in revenue, the district may not have that money.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t continue, but we’ll have to reevaluate,” said O’Briant.

Those schools are slated to be completed in the 2010-2011 school year.

And a similar decline in enrollment and minority to majority transfers of students could cost the district another $3 million next year.

Many see construction of new schools as an important element in staunching the enrollment decline.

The board left a workshop prior to the regularly scheduled school board meeting Tuesday having brainstormed the notion of a millage increase, its amount and when to place it before voters without coming to any conclusions, O’Briant said.

“Most voiced the opinion that they could support a millage if we put together a package saying where the money will be spent and how much we need,” he said.

The current PCSSD millage is 40.6 mills, about what North Little Rock patrons pay and less than the 46.4 mills Little Rock patrons pay.

“We’ve got to visit with the community and business community,” he added. “It would be foolish to put a millage on a ballot with doing the groundwork (to know if it’s likely) to pass.”

He said public meetings would be required to see if there was support around the district for an increase.
When talking to the board, he has generally referred to a 7.7-mill increase, which would raise an additional $200 million. That exceeds the $128 million worth of needs identified on the current 10-year facilities plan, but leaves room for construction inflation and an addition of projects.

A millage increase is always a tricky sell in this district, where voters have decisively turned down the last two such proposals.
But by linking construction of schools in the Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle areas as well as the just-completed Chenal Elementary School, the administration hopes that voters throughout the district will understand they have a stake in approving an increase.

The major construction to be funded would be included in the ballot title of any proposed millage increase, thus requiring the district to use the money to build the facilities named.

Last month, the PCSSD Board unanimously approved a new 10-year-facilities plan, which includes a new Jacksonville middle school and a new elementary school to serve the areas previously served by Arnold Drive and Tolleson Elementary schools.
Previously, a new middle school was not on the list and a school to replace the Arnold Drive building was closer to the end of the 10-year plan.

Members of the Jacksonville World Class Education Orga-nization have promoted the Jacksonville Middle School for inclusion on the list and members of the congressional delegation and Little Rock Air Force Base officials have pushed for a new school to replace Arnold Drive Elementary School, which is located on the base.

Members of that organization have suggested that a smaller increase—say 2 mills—would be sufficient to pay for the Jacksonville schools, but administrators and some board members question whether that proposal would get the support of voters in other parts of the district.

“We’re hoping that by including something for Maumelle, Sherwood and Jacksonville…it’s hard to get support from one end of the county to the other without tangible benefits,” O’Briant said. “Obviously, we can’t build four schools without a millage increase.”

If the board proposes a millage increase, it could be placed on the September school election ballot, although there are other options, including a special election.