School districts looking to voters for improvements

By Tammy Keith Published September 15, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Heber Springs School District Superintendent Russell Hester, left, talks with band director Traci Jernigan about future plans for school facilities, including the often overcrowded band room.

Three school districts in the River Valley & Ozark Edition coverage area — Heber Springs, Dover and Danville — will seek millage increases in Tuesday’s school elections for construction and safety improvements, the superintendents said.

Heber Springs Superintendent Russell Hester said it is past time to upgrade facilities and give students what they deserve.

Patrons will be asked to approve a 3.4-mill property-tax increase to fund $12 million in improvements.

“We’re not asking for big-time wants,” Hester said. “Right now, we’re talking about needs. It’s a huge difference.”

Hester said the district has not asked for a millage increase since 1993.

The district has relied on state money given per student and on growth in property-tax assessments.

A 3.4-mill increase would up the district’s millage rate from 29.4 to 32.8, meaning an extra $68 a year in property taxes on a home assessed at $100,000.

Enrollment in kindergarten through the 12th grade is 1,840, an increase of about 40 students from last year, Hester said.

“When you have growth, you have to have more teachers, and when you have more teachers, you have to have more rooms. We just can’t continue pushing them in closets any more than we have,” he said.

The following are among the proposed projects:

• The No. 1 priority is a performing-arts complex, Hester said. It would provide space for the band, choir and drama.

The band building was constructed in the 1970s to house about 60 students, Hester said, and the district has 90 band students.

The room is crowded, “the acoustics are terrible,” he said, and band instruments are kept in various locations.

He said students store instruments in a former concession area and closets of an old gym attached to the band building.

“They’ve just got them all over the place. It’s hardly fair — those instruments are expensive — not to have a secure place, a dry place. Too much money is tied up in that program not to treat them any better,” Hester said.

“In my opinion, we have one of the better high school bands in Arkansas,” he said, adding that he believes the program would grow if it had better facilities.

Choir and drama students would benefit, too, he said.

“We’ve got a drama class, but we’ve got a small little stage in our cafeteria with no dressing rooms, no side rooms, so we can’t really have a play,” he said.

Hester said students who would like to be involved in theater are missing out.

“That’s a really good program. We really don’t have a drama department because we don’t have a facility,” he said.

The 1,000-seat auditorium in the proposed facility could also be used by the community, Hester said.

“We’re a really nice town that doesn’t have a place where we can bring in any kind of group, any kind of performers,” he said.

Heber Springs School Board President Gary Redd agreed that the complex is the district’s first priority.

He said that for years, none of the performing-arts programs — band, choir or drama — has had adequate facilities in which to rehearse or perform.

“It’s time to build it; our students deserve it,” Redd said.

• Security measures.

“It’s a big, hot topic, naturally,” Hester said of security on campus.

“We have hired a second resource officer. We’ve added cameras, most outside, some inside that we’ve added since school started,” he said.

“Cameras might deter somebody, but they’re basically for after the fact. We’d like to rearrange some entrances to make it where people have to check in — go in front of an office to be buzzed in or checked in,” he said.

He said some of the entrances and exits have been the same for 30 to 40 years, and there are too many of them.

“Just the mentality of the architecture of the buildings back then, … it’s just different than our needs are now,” he said.

• Expansion of the high school cafeteria.

The cafeteria was built to hold about 200 students comfortably, Hester said. Enrollment is 525 students in grades nine through 12. He said two 30-minute lunch periods are held with 250-plus students each, “sitting almost on top of each other, eating outside. It’s just a tough deal.”

Redd said the small stage would be removed, and more seating would be added, along with bathrooms, as well as windows to provide a view of the courtyard.

• An occupational- and physical-therapy building.

Hester said the program is now housed in a “portable trailer — you can’t call it anything else.”

“There is very limited space for the kids to do their work — their physical work and some of the skills they need to be taught,” he said. “In reality, it’s not a safe place in bad weather. We’d like to get rid of that old trailer and build us a new physical-, occupational-therapy facility.”

• Repairs, renovations — Hester said repairs would include replacing windows with energy-efficient windows, replacing air conditioners, etc.

Hester said he has heard more positive than negative responses regarding the millage proposal.

“When people look and say it’s been 20 years, … I hope they trust us that we’re doing the best we can do with funds available,” Hester said.

Redd said he congratulates board members and others involved in the millage campaign for doing their homework.

“We’ve got some good hard figures and know what we can do with $12 million,” he said.

Redd said money would also be put into maintenance and operations for the buildings being constructed.

Danville

The Danville School District is asking for a 3.5-mill increase to build a cafeteria and safe room — “first and foremost” — nine elementary classes and a library, Superintendent Gregg Grant said.

“Another big thing is a new roof on the existing elementary,” he said.

The cost of the project is “right around $5 million,” he said.

A 3.5-mill increase would raise the property-tax millage from 31 to 34.5 mills.

That would mean an additional $70 a year in taxes on a $100,000 home, Grant said.

“That’s still going to be the lowest in the county and lower than state average,” Grant said, adding that 37.29 mills is the state average.

Grant took over July 1 after former Superintendent Mike Hernandez left to take a position with the Arkansas Department of Education.

“Mike and them did a really good job as far as researching the needs, … first and foremost a cafeteria/safe room,” Grant said. “Anytime that you can provide any type of secure environment for your little ones, it’s a step in the right direction.”

The 1,000-person-capacity safe room would be attached to the kitchen and serve the new and existing cafeteria, he said.

“It’s a millage that the school will be able to utilize it, but it also has a value to the community with the safe room,” he said.

“During severe weather in nonschool hours, the community will have access to the safe room.”

He said the plan is to have all corridors connected so that during severe weather, students could go from their classes to the safe room.

The new cafeteria, to be utilized for kindergarten through the fifth grade, would allow kindergartners to eat lunch at a later time, he said.

“We’ve got one cafeteria, one kitchen. We start feeding kids at 10:40 in the morning, and the last is 12:30. It’s just all day long.”

With a larger cafeteria, kindergartners could eat about 11:15, he said.

The district’s enrollment is 880 students in kindergarten through grade 12, Grant said. The current cafeteria would be used for grades six through eight.

He said because the bus garage is in the middle of campus, a new one would be built at Cowger Farm before construction on the cafeteria and safe room can begin.

“That would be the first order of business,” he said.

“We’re at the point where the classrooms themselves are going to alleviate some issues,” Grant said.

He said the addition would provide room for occupational and physical therapy and allow “reconfigurations of grade levels.”

Some elementary classes, art, gifted and talented and special-education classrooms, are in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, Grant said.

“And what we’re wanting to do is eliminate those FEMA trailers and put [those students] in the new building,” he said.

Construction of a new library would make room for another computer lab in the existing library for kindergartners through fifth-graders.

“Computers aren’t going away,” he said.

Grant said the district’s infrastructure would be upgraded for computers because the buildings were constructed in the 1960s “and don’t have the capacity.”

“All testing is moving to online. We want to make sure our students have every advantage,” he said.

Grant said two previous millage requests — in 2006 and 2007 — were defeated, but those proposals were for 6 mills.

He said he is optimistic about this year’s request.

“Everything seems to be real positive; the community seems to be real supportive,” he said.

Dover

Dover school patrons will be asked to approve a 5.5-mill increase in property taxes, increasing the millage from 40.3 to 45.8 mills for a middle-school addition and renovation, and a physical-education facility.

Superintendent Jerry Owens said the millage increase would help fund an approximately $13 million project to add 28 classrooms at the lower middle school and to renovate 10 classrooms. The property-tax increase for someone with a $100,000 home would be $110 per year.

Owens said the plan is to connect the lower middle school, built in 1978, to the fine-arts building and cafeteria.

“The big reason we’re doing that is because the middle-school building, cafeteria and PE buildings are all separate buildings — kids have to cross school roads. It’s a safety and security issue, No. 1,” Owens said.

“We want to upgrade and get our kids under one roof. We’re really stressing safety and security and trying to maximize our buildings,” he said.

Also, the millage will fund a PE/field-house facility attached to the new classrooms, as well as a safe room.

“Kids would be able to walk all the way from the PE building to the classrooms and to the library and cafeteria without ever having to leave the building,” he said.

The field house would be used for all sorts of activities, Owens said, including football, baseball and softball. It would have indoor batting cages for girls softball and boys baseball.

“During the day, you expect [grades] seven through 12 folks to use it the most for either PE or athletics, or whatever activities there are, but also, we expect peewees to be able to use it, just like they do all our facilities,” Owens said. “We truly expect it to be a multipurpose-type building.”

The last millage increase that district patrons approved in 2006, he said, funded a new elementary school that was completed in 2009 for kindergarten through the fourth grade.

A high school facility opened in 2000.

“We have a beautiful elementary school and a beautiful high school; the athletic facilities in between are just horrendous,” Owens said.

“[We’re] getting very good feedback. … As you look at our middle school and even our athletic facility, we’ve not ever spent any money on our athletic facility,” he said.

Athletics was moved from a small metal building, Owens said, to the former elementary school when the new one opened.

The metal field house, “just a really, really small building,” was donated by the booster club more than 30 years ago, Owens said.

“A group of parents came [to tour], and kids are dressing at the same place they were lifting weights,” he said. “We were in the old metal building. It was so crowded, and for safety reasons, we moved them into the elementary [school], which basically was an abandoned building being used for storage.

“When people come to the campus and look at our facilities and see these, they all just totally agree there’s a need there. We know there’s a need.”

Owens said the 5.5-mill increase will generate about $9.6 million, and the district is receiving a $4.6 million state partnership grant.

The cushion would pay for furniture, security systems, “whatever else could potentially come up,” Owens said.

The target date to start construction on the projects is March 1, Owens said, with a completion date of Aug. 1, 2015.

“We have had public meetings for the last six months, at least every other week,” Owens said.

“We have really tried to inform the public and get things out about this and have worked really really hard to make sure folks have all the information.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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