Eight of 12 Arkansas school districts holding elections in September to increase millage rates succeeded in their efforts.
Also, voters in Charleston voted to issue $9.17 million in bonds for improvements to district buildings and property.
Meanwhile, voters in Dollarway, Clarksville, Harrisburg, and Harmony Grove in Ouachita County said no to millage increases. Also, voters in Hackett approved, 135-49, a uniform millage rate of 38 mills – lowering the amount paid by Hackett residents from 39.3 mills to match that paid by Hartford School District patrons after Hackett annexed Hartford this past July.
The largest increase occurred in Parkers Chapel, where voters by a count of 144-37 approved a 7-mill increase from 32.8 to 39.8 mills to create classroom space, renovate the cafetorium, and make other small improvements such as air-conditioning the gym.
The district’s superintendent, Michael White, said the district near El Dorado had grown to the point that its youngest students were starting lunch at 10:20 a.m. and then being fed a snack in the afternoon so they wouldn’t go home hungry. He said the 7-mill increase hopefully will meet the district’s needs “for the next 20 years.”
He said the district did not mount much of a campaign.
“The community has always been very much behind the school system,” he said. “It didn’t take a lot. We just put it out for them and gave them the information, and we explained why we thought we needed it, and without a whole lot of noise, it passed at a very high rate.”
Arkadelphia raises salaries
In Arkadelphia, voters by a count of 1,102-834 approved increasing the millage rate from 38.9 to 44.65 mills, a 5.75-mill increase, to construct new elementary and middle schools, close three schools, and increase faculty and staff salaries. The district had $3.7 million in state partnership funds already committed for the $10 million middle school and expected a similar match to be provided in January for the elementary school. The school district’s newest building, Arkadelphia High School, is 43 years old, while the oldest is 71 years old. To prepare for the campaign, the community was asked to complete a survey, with a majority saying they wanted new facilities and higher salaries.
Dr. Jeff Root, the school board president, said the board emphasized the state partnership money as well as the fact that teachers and staff members would receive raises. A town hall meeting was held where school board members answered questions. There was opposition, but if anything, it motivated supporters to vote, he said.
“The key for us is that Arkadelphia is a place that understands the value of education, and we don’t go back to the well too often,” he said. “We try to make sure we’ve got a really good explanation for why it’s necessary to raise your taxes every now and then and just how much good it would do to have new schools in a district where all the schools were, well, quite old.”
Third try a charm in Manila
Voters in Manila by a count of 459-229 approved a 4.7-mill increase from 37 to 41.7 mills to build a new high school and replace the current school that was built in the 1950s, when “Harry Truman was president,” said the district’s superintendent, Pam Castor. State partnership money will pay for $14 million of the $20 million project. The measure passed, 435-198, a high turnout that is par for the course for Manila, Castor said.
This was Manila’s third attempt to pass a millage increase. This one was different because it was the first time partnership money had been approved. Also, the district decided to build the facility at its current site rather than a new location, which was a contentious idea in the past two elections.
“You have to listen to your community, and you have to be responsive to what they want,” she said. “It is their money. And then you have to be careful to understand what people’s concerns are, and you have to be responsive to those.”
Castor said school supporters did use social media to help pass the request, but they also remembered that voters get their information from other sources.
South Conway County: Safety first
In South Conway County, voters by a count of 1,109-374 approved a 3.9-mill increase from 35.4 to 39.3 mills to remodel its five schools. At the primary school, a new cafetorium, physical education/safe room facility, and art, music and special education classrooms will be built. The elementary school will see a physical education/safe room facility and technology labs added to the old P.E. facility. The intermediate school and junior high will have new secured entrances, the junior high will have a new technology lab, and a new arena/safe room will be built between the high school and junior high. A well-produced video on the district’s website told of the millage increase’s benefits and pointed out that, prior to the vote, the district had the lowest millage rate on the I-40 corridor between Conway and Russellville. Property taxes will increase $39 per year for every $50,000 of property owned, and taxes will not be raised for senior citizens and people with disabilities.
John Gibson, school board president, said millage supporters made safety the election’s theme. Prior to the project, there was only one safe room among the district’s five campuses. Now there will be a safe room on each campus that is open to the public after school hours, which was an important selling point for a community that’s not far from Vilonia and Mayflower, two communities that have been struck recently by tornadoes. The effort will ensure that entrances to all campuses will be secured.
Gibson said early in the process the superintendent and school board members visited faculty members on all the campuses to gain their support. That effort was worth a lot of votes. “We approached it that way intentionally because we felt like we really needed to have the faculty and staff on board,” he said.
Augusta School District voters approved by a count of 220-67 a 3.2-mill increase from 32.5 to 35.7 mills to make improvements to a campus that Terry Shadwick, school board president, said was in danger of going into facilities distress. Shadwick said the high school’s ceiling tiles and lighting have not been replaced since 1971, its air-conditioning units need to be replaced, and the bus garage is too small for the district’s needs. The state has given the district time to make improvements, but the district has never had the money to make those happen, and with average daily membership shrinking, money was needed. Shadwick said the effort was helped by local supporters who informally spoke up for the school. Another advantage was the small size of the millage request, which involved improvements rather than an expensive new building. “Our community rallied behind us, and they passed it with a pretty overwhelming vote. They want to keep their school,” he said.
Guy Perkins voters approved 197-71 a 2.5-mill increase from 39.5 to 42 mills to help pull the district out of fiscal distress. Board member James Rooney said the district had declining revenue the last two years because of a fall in natural gas-related property taxes. Board members went door to door asking for votes from largely receptive voters who didn’t want to be consolidated with nearby districts. “Some people were real receptive to it, and then some of them didn’t like it so much, but the small schools, if you go door to door and talk to people, most likely they’re going to respect you and are going to give you what you want,” he said.
Elsewhere, in Ozark, voters by a count of 621-481 approved a 5.5-mill increase from 33 to 38.5 mills to replace an elementary school and junior high, convert the current junior high into an elementary school for grades 4-5, and build a new auditorium at the junior high shared by all the schools
School board president Mike Gibbons said the building program was needed because of space needs and because the aging lower elementary school, which was built in the mid-1960s, was becoming a maintenance headache with many classrooms exposed to the exterior. A local group of citizens ran a “Say Yes” campaign. School board members helped educate the public but were not actively involved in the committee.
Also, voters in Kirby approved a 1-mill increase from 35 mills to 36 mills, 64-27, to buy school buses. According to the Southwest Arkansas News website, the increase will generate a little more than $30,000 per year, enough to buy a new school bus every two-and-a-half to three years. At the district’s annual report to the public, Superintendent Jeff Alexander said the increase would cost the owner of $50,000 worth of property 85 cents per month to give students safer transportation both for school and for extracurricular activities, the website said.
Harmony Grove: Try again
Voters in the Harmony Grove School District in Ouachita County by a count of 274-299 voted down a 5.7-mill increase that would have raised the millage from 40.2 to 45.9 mills for various facilities improvements. That district has called for a special election Feb. 9 to present the request again. Joe Rogers, president of that school board, said the district is looking to take advantage of $1.8 million in state partnership funding to build six new classrooms and a multipurpose facility for P.E. and basketball at the Harmony Grove campus and upgrade the Sparkman campus for distance learning capabilities.
Rogers said the effort was hurt by the U.S. military’s announcement shortly before the election that the Lockheed Martin plant in the Camden area would not be building the military’s new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. That announcement removed some of the urgency in the community about adding capacity to the school.
Meanwhile, voters in Clarksville by a count of 705-1,179 said no to the largest request on the ballot, a 7.9-mill increase from 34.5 to 42.4 mills to spend $28.48 million to construct a new high school and gym and two storm shelters, and to renovate the football stadium. Earlier in the month, voters had approved a 1-mill county library tax. According to KFSM’s website, 5newsonline.com, the district made the request because of a lack of space. The district’s superintendent, Dr. David Hopkins, said he had not been aware of much opposition to the proposal, but attendance at public meetings was sparse. Hopkins said the school board would consider a different proposal that would be limited to asking for a high school and safe rooms.
Also, voters in the Dollarway School District by a count of 298-344 said no to a 6.7-mill increase, from 40.8 to 47.5 mills, to build classrooms and a new high school auditorium and make other improvements, as well as increase teacher salaries.
Harrisburg voters rejected, 89-268, a 4.4-mill rate that would have equalized rates to the 39.9 mills collected in what was the Weiner School District, which was annexed into Harrisburg in 2010. As a result of that vote, rates will continue to be unequal in that district.
By Steve Brawner
Report Card Editor
Visit the Report Card Magazine page, December 2015 issue, for more articles.