Leader Blues

Friday, April 11, 2008

TOP STORY > >No new schools without tax hike

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Construction of a Jackson-ville middle school and a new elementary school at Little Rock Air Force Base depends upon Pulaski County Special School District having the money to pay for them at a time when the district is losing money and seems to lack the resolve to promote, or even submit to voters, a millage increase proposal.

An unscientific telephone survey conducted in-house by the district’s public-relations firm showed only lukewarm support for a millage increase.

While both schools are on the district’s 10-year school facilities master plan, construction is contingent upon approval of a property tax increase. The district had suggested a 7.7-mill, $200 million increase to pay for all items on the master facilities plan, while some Jacksonville community members say a 2-mill increase would take care of local schools and be easier to pass.

Any millage increase must pass district-wide.
Consensus of board members at a millage workshop Tuesday afternoon was that the district ought to reconsider the matter in a year.

Lack of a millage increase would also push back construction of the new Sylvan Hills middle school and the new Maumelle high school, according to Larry O’Briant, the district’s chief financial officer. Lack of new revenues from a millage increase is just one of the financial challenges facing the district and school construction, O’Briant said Friday.

Others include:

Continually declining enrollment, resulting in less funding. Last year the district lost 302 students, O’Briant said, costing PCSSD about $1.6 million in state minimum foundation aid. That’s the money that follows to the student to a district at a rate of about $5,800 each.

This year, the district lost another 135 students, meaning a decrease of about $750,000 in state aid next year.

Possible achievement of unitary status. That could cost the district its $15 million a year share of state desegregation money, phased out over a seven-year period.

Also, if and when Jacksonville detaches to form its own district, that’s about $30 million a year that would go to the new district instead of PCSSD, but that PCSSD could be left paying the note on about $40 million worth of new Jacksonville schools.

“These three factors have really put the district walking on uncharted waters,” O’Briant said. “I didn’t realize that Jacksonville was as close to detaching. These unknowns have put us in a conservative, cautious mode.”

The survey—really more like a focus group—was just to feel the pulse of patrons on a millage.

“We did 154 calls, primarily in Maumelle and Sherwood and Chanel Valley on April 2,” said Craig Douglass, the district’s public-relations consultant.

The question was: “In order to maintain public school buildings and education programs, the Pulaski County Special School District is considering asking for a millage increase. Would you favor or oppose increasing the property tax millage to support the public schools in your area?”

Of the 154 responses, 34 percent strongly favored, 30 percent strongly opposed, and the remainder somewhat favorable, somewhat opposed or undecided, according to Douglass.

Douglass said that after about 14 negative responses in the first 14 calls to Jacksonville residents, they stopped making surveys in Jacksonville.

“To me, 159 phone calls isn’t a real sample,” said school board member Danny Gilliland. “They called 14 in Jacksonville and stopped.” I live in the area, my kids go to school there and I’m not getting that same negative feeling from there,” he said.

“That question didn’t give voters any information,” said state Representative Will Bond, president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Association.

It was the association that kept pressure on the school board to finally put some Jacksonville schools on the facilities master plan.

He said the board’s ambivalence about the millage-increase vote is among the things that have led to “a level of frustration.”

“We don’t feel from the administration the sense of urgency there should be,” Bond said. “Kids only go through the system once, you can’t turn back the clock on educational opportunities.”

One young Jacksonville mother of two said area residents would be disinclined to vote for a millage increase because they don’t trust PCSSD.