DOVER — Dover Superintendent Jerry Owens said Arkansas Department of Education officials told him Feb. 25 that the school’s 76-year-old physical-education facility is “not suitable for use in a modern setting.”
Owens said he and school board members are brainstorming about what to do.
“[The state officials] basically told us we were going to have to address deficiencies we had in the old gym and middle school right away. What ‘right away’ means is open to some subjectivity,” Owens said.
Owens met last week in Little Rock with Chuck Stein, director of the state Department of Education’s Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, and Terry Granderson, assistant director of that division.
Two millage-increase proposals that would have built a new PE facility have failed.
A 5.5-mill property-tax increase failed big in September by a vote of 824 against and 394 in favor of the proposal. After getting feedback from the community, Owens said, the district dropped the athletic field house from the plan.
A 3.5-mill property-tax increase failed by only 38 votes in a Feb. 11 special election, 468 to 430.
The $10.65 million project called for adding 26 classrooms to the lower middle school and renovating 10 existing rooms. The plans included a physical-education facility and a separate 3,500-square-foot safe room.
The millage would have been combined with a $4.6 million state partnership grant, which was contingent on the millage passing.
“What’s frustrating to me is I specifically sought input from the public,” said Michael S. Robbins, board president. “I asked, I begged, I pleaded — what would it take for you to support the middle-school project?”
Robbins said all he heard was to get rid of the field house, which the district did, but the millage still failed.
“That’s frustrating,” he said.
The middle school has several deficiencies, he said. It’s an “antiquated facility,” and the classrooms are too small to accommodate the necessary technology, and that affects test scores, Robbins said.
He said the elementary school is modern, and test scores “are great” there.
“You go into the middle school, and we see a marked drop in test scores,” Robbins said. “Climate has a big impact, the learning environment.”
Students have to go down a hill to the cafeteria and fine arts building, he said, which causes a disruption for students and loss of class time, he said.
The plan was to connect those buildings so the students could be under one roof.
The state is “pushing us to take some action to alleviate the problem now. I don’t know at this point what the solution is going to be,” Robbins said.
Owens said it’s not the district’s fault that the Works Progress Administration gym is in poor shape.
“Let me emphasize what they told us,” Owens said. The present gym is “inadequate not because of lack of maintenance or upkeep by the district.
“It’s a 76-year-old building with 76-year-old pipes, 76-year-old wiring, a 76-year-old foundation,” Owens said.
Some updates in the electrical panel have been made, Owens said, “but you’ve still got some of the original wire in there. It’s not prudent to use district money to maintain this building.
“We all love it. It has great sentimental value, and we all appreciate the history of it, but in order to bring that thing up to meet current state standards, [it] is just not financially feasible.”
The superintendent said he and school board members discussed the dilemma at a Feb. 27 meeting.
“It was more of an information-type meeting,” Owens said. “We just again explained to the board what the [state] department of facilities had relayed to us, that primarily we’ve got to address deficiencies in this old gym and the middle school, but primarily the old gym.
“What [state officials] told us [Feb. 25] is that since the millage failed, it’s going to be incumbent upon the district to provide facilities for a middle-school gym.
“Right now, we’re just in the processing stage. The consensus of the board and the district is that putting money into that old WPA gym is just not in the best interest of the district.”
State standards require students to have 60 minutes of physical education each week, Owens said.
“In our case particularly, we have three grades there, 330 students,” he said.
“I don’t have to have a PE facility, OK? I have to have PE. Do you want to offer PE outside, no matter what the weather?”
He said the cafeteria is a possibility for PE classes, but with its use for meals through the early afternoon and a stage that is utilized, “It would not be a very good place for PE, obviously.”
Another possibility is “maybe try to modify some PE lesson plans” and utilize classrooms in the lower middle school, Owens said.
“[State officials] said if we address these needs and show some good-faith effort, there’s the possibility of a third millage” to build a facility, he said.
Granderson of the state Department of Education said a district cannot have two millage elections in the same calendar year and must have them seven months apart.
“The earliest they can do it is January of next year,” he said in an earlier interview.
Owens said state officials suggested that if the district will kick in $700,000, the state would provide $1.2 million in state partnership funds to build a PE facility.
If that’s the option the district chooses, “something else or a combination of something else will be cut to meet that; that’s the difficult thing,” Owens said.
If the board chooses to build a PE facility using that method, the district could later ask for a lower millage and receive the remainder of the state partnership money — $3.4 million — to make the other improvements and build additions.
Robbins said he believes the solution state officials gave is going to “alienate” the voters, and it will be hard to get a third millage proposal passed.
If the district builds the PE facility anyway, he said, patrons may ask, “Why are you spending money on a PE facility when you need to fix problems at the middle school?’ I think it will be difficult to get the support of the public if we do that,” he said.
Owens said the elementary school was deemed inadequate in 2007, and another facility was built.
“Overall, the rest of our facilities are excellent, the elementary and high school,” Owens said.
“If we can just knock these two out (a gym and middle-school addition), our facilities will be as good as any around.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.