Leader Blues

Friday, April 17, 2009

TOP STORY >> Cost drops for schools in district

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

With a new high school in Maumelle nearly ready to go to bid, the Pulaski County Special School District still doesn’t know if it will have the money to pay for it.

The district expects to finance the high school, currently estimated at $65 million plus $8 million for outdoor sports facilities, from the proceeds of the $81 million second-lien bond that the state Board of Education rejected Monday.

Site preparation already has begun, said Bob Shell, president of Baldwin Shell, construction manager for the job.

Architect Bradley Chilcote of Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson showed the site plan to the board members and he and Shell told the PCSSD board Tuesday night that construction costs had dropped since the earlier estimate of $80 million for the high school.

They said they thought they could build for about $182 a square foot.

The new 1,500-student school at Maumelle would replace the decrepit 600-student Robinson High School. It is designed to serve 2,000 people in the cafeteria, allowing for future expansion.

Some board members questioned the need for such a large replacement school.

Deputy superintendent Beverly Ruthven said the district estimates that the Maumelle school would have an enrollment of 1,500 in about 10 years.

Board member Shana Chaplin asked why the school had to be so expensive.

Interim superintendent Rob McGill called the new projects “state of the art, by far the most technologically advanced 9-12 school in central Arkansas.”

The district is hoping that the state Board of Education will hear a revised application at its May meeting. Carey Smith, the district’s Stephens Inc. financial advisor, said, ordinarily the state Board wouldn’t consider bonds again until the June meeting.

Some members of the PCSSD board, as well as the state Board of Education members, didn’t feel the district had proven its ability to pay the bond off and also said they didn’t like the idea of paying for bricks and mortar by cutting jobs and teachers’ hours.

The school board voted to eliminate three positions, to cut two paid days a year off the teachers salaries and three days paid days a year off the contracts of some principals and administrators.

The 1-percent reduction in paid teacher days would save the district $951,000 a year. Teachers also would be asked to monitor bus loading and unloading free instead of being paid.

Those were among cuts McGill, working with board president Tim Clark, would implement to help pay for the 27-year bond at the rate of about $5 million a year.

A proposal to eliminate a dozen or more vice principal positions to save $1.9 million was not voted upon. The district would like to use that money to pay off the bonded debt, and then use federal stimulus money for a year or two to reinstate those positions.

The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers told the board teacher pay cuts couldn’t be made without negotiating with the union and successfully insisted that the recommendation to cut two days a year include the phrase “subject to negotiation with PACT.”

“Is it a negotiation when one party says adamantly its not going to negotiate?” asked McGill.

The also board cut three positions for the 2009-2010 school year to save another $210,000.

Some school board members fear that PCSSD could end up back in fiscal distress, under the thumb of the state Education Department if it doesn’t consider its finances carefully before committing to the bond issue.

It appears that the bond-payment plan doesn’t take into account that the district would lose about $20 million a year after the desegregation case is settled and perhaps $36 million a year in minimum foundation aid if Jacksonville gets its own district with about one third of the students or the loss of revenues from the continuing decline in attendance.

It also doesn’t seem to include revenues lost when Jacksonville gets its own district and its patrons are no longer liable for a portion of that $80 million bond.

On Tuesday night, the board approved 5-2 a motion to exclude a new Jacksonville school district from debt service obligations on the $81 million second-lien bond when that proposed district is detached from PCSSD.

Voting against the proposal were Gwen Williams, who says she “doesn’t trust Jacksonville” anymore, and Charlie Wood, who says he’s not opposed in principle but thought it ill advised to give that up without getting something in return.

The three eliminated positions are the Cyber Academy specialist, one instructional technology specialist and the district’s director of community affairs.

Emotional and nearly in tears over the disrepair of PCSSD buildings, longtime teacher Risa Briggs urged district board members to repair most existing schools rather than build two new ones.

“We don’t have our priorities in order. We need to take care of the schools we have,” she said, pointing to leaky roofs and schools where there’s not even money for paper towels.

“Mr. Clark, I’m addressing you,” said Briggs, who said she had taught in PCSSD schools for 30 years.

Alluding to the $81 million second-lien bond issue sought by the district to build a new high school at Maumelle and a new Sylvan Hills middle school, “I challenge you to accomplish that without exchanging personnel for bricks and mortar.”