Vilonia School District seeks millage increase

By Tammy Keith Published September 17, 2017 at 12:00 a.m.
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The Vilonia School District is asking patrons to approve a 5.7-mill increase in Tuesday’s school election to fund a three-phase $33 million construction project, shown in this schematic design. The project includes a 1,200-seat auditorium, a larger cafeteria and a career and technical-education center, as well as renovations to the high school.

VILONIA — Voters will decide Tuesday in the annual school election whether the Vilonia School District will be able to embark on a three-phase $33 million construction project.

A 5.7-mill property-tax increase is on the ballot. The school district’s proposed project includes a 1,200-seat auditorium and a larger cafeteria, a career and technical-

education center and renovations to the high school. The cost includes furnishings and fees for Lewis Architects Engineers in Little Rock.

The district’s millage would increase from 39.9 to 45.6, and the property-tax increase would cost patrons an additional $114 a year, based on a home with a $100,000 market value.

The first phase of the proposed project, which would start in fall 2017, would be the construction of an auditorium on the east side of the high school and almost doubling the size of the cafeteria.

“The cafeteria is needed just because we’re out of space,” Vilonia Superintendent David Stephens said.

Phase 1 would also include moving the administrative offices in the high school so the library/media space could be enlarged.

Stephens said there is “definitely opposition to it, but I’m hearing a lot of positive comments. I’m hearing a lot of people telling me they’re supporting it, so I’m very optimistic.”

He said three public meetings have taken place, and he has talked to people who are against the millage increase.

“The folks I’ve spoken with just say they don’t want any new taxes,” he said. “At the end of the day, I respect their opinion, and they have to vote their conscience.”

Stephens said he doesn’t think he’s swayed anyone’s vote.

“One man said, ‘What would you say to me to change my mind?’ I said ‘Nothing, because I’m asking you to pay more taxes,’” Stephens said. “There’s no sugar-coating that at the end of the day. … That’s what it takes to improve

facilities.”

Wade Lentz, pastor of Beryl Baptist Church, is one of those who doesn’t support the millage increase.

Lentz, who has lived in the city more than 30 years and attended Vilonia schools, said several people have told him privately that they will vote against the tax increase.

“When you live in a small town, a lot of folks are afraid to publicly state they’re opposed,” he said. “It’s a small town — your neighbors may work at the school.”

He said his wife works at Conway Christian School, so his children are required to attend there.

Lentz said the 5.7-mill increase is simply too much.

“The biggest issue, it’s too big of an increase at one time. This is almost a 15 percent increase, which would put us at the top of the school districts in the state,” he said. “We’d be, I think, 10 or 11. It’s too much on your businesses.”

According to the Arkansas Department of Education website, in 2016, nine school districts had millages higher than 45.6. The 2016 state average is 37.94 mills, the website states.

Lentz said he understands that the lack of an industrial base is one reason the increase is needed.

“However, it puts all the pressure on the property owner,” he said.

Lentz said he and others who are opposed to the increase aren’t against the district.

“We are for kids; we are for the school. At the same time, we’ve got to think about the elderly; we’ve got to think about the single-income homes, the single moms. We have heard from single moms who say, ‘Thank you for raising this awareness. It’s going to be a hardship on us,’” Lentz said.

“When you focus on one particular group, … you therefore lose sight of another group — the poor, the elderly on fixed incomes,” he said.

Lentz said if the property-tax increase was smaller, “there wouldn’t be near the opposition.”

The district’s last millage increase was five years ago. Voters approved a 1-mill increase by a 3-1 margin in the September 2012 school election to build the intermediate school.

School Board President Randy Sanders, who is in his 29th year on the board, said it is the largest request in the district’s history.

“We could do one project and probably ask for less millage, but in order to get the things we need as a district and continue to grow and get everything we need for the kids, we had to ask for more to be able to do those projects over X number of years,” he said.

The construction project would be done in three phases, Stephens said, to ease the burden on taxpayers. He said if all three projects were launched at one time, a much higher property-tax increase — 9 to 10 mills — would be needed.

Laura Patrom, a mother of three children who attend school in the Vilonia district, is a member of the millage

committee.

“To me, the cost is worth it, not just for our students but for our community,” she said. “Taxes are taxes; nobody jumps for joy at the idea of paying more taxes. But when it’s a school tax, it gives me great comfort in knowing where that money is going.”

A former teacher, Patrom said the Vilonia School District “has always been been sought after, but we need to keep up, or parents won’t continue to move here for the school district. It’s about continuing to pursue excellence as a district.

“Yes, I’m fighting for my kids and their chances and the future of this school, but in the end, this school is the heartbeat of this community,” Patrom said. “It’s not just about growing; it’s about keeping our town from dying as well.

“Our community has been through so much in the past with the tornado; it’s exciting to have something to look forward to and to shine a positive light on our town. We need to be able to meet the needs of all the students — all areas, talents and abilities — and serve them fairly.”

The auditorium, or performing arts center, is “near and dear to my heart,” Patrom said. She said students can receive scholarships because of band, choir or drama programs.

She said the career and technical-education center is exciting, too, and the district will partner with Nabholz Construction to provide training for students.

“That [center] is going to meet so many needs, and it’s so important. As a community, we are going to be getting our kids not just college-ready, but career-ready,” she said.

Sanders said all three projects are important.

“Actually, we could have used all these facilities a long time ago, but we just haven’t had the money,” he said.

“If our tax base wasn’t so low, we would have asked for it a long time ago. There’s not a lot of industry,” Sanders said. “We don’t get the growth there, as far as businesses, as other towns do, and that’s a negative, and that’s why people have been real generous to support us.”

Sanders said he has been through several millage campaigns.

“We only ask when there’s a need to help us move forward and educate the kids,” he said.

Stephens said the district has received $4.2 million in state aid, leaving the district responsible for nearly

$29 million.

He said a $1.5 million state partnership grant was awarded to the district for the auditorium construction, but the district will lose the grant if construction doesn’t start in the fall.

“The window to use that money is closing,” Stephens said.

Student parking would be moved to near the auditorium, freeing the current student parking space for the second phase of the plans, construction of a career-technical center on the west side of the high school, scheduled to start no later than fall 2021.

“It’s kind of like chess, moving the pieces where they fit the best,” Stephens said earlier.

The final phase, renovations to the high school, will include enlarging classrooms and improving existing science labs. That phase is scheduled to begin no later than 2026.

Stephens said all the projects are needed, but he is particularly excited about the opportunities students would have with the establishment of a career-technical center.

“We just believe very strongly as a district that we need to put an emphasis on college and career readiness,” he said.

Stephens said if the property-tax increase doesn’t pass, “that’s going to hold us back as far as what we can do for kids; there’s no doubt about that.”

However, if the millage proposal fails, Stephens said, administrators and staff will “dust ourselves off” and get back to work.

“We get back together, and we keep planning for how we can provide the best opportunities we can for our kids, which is what we do every day,” he said.

Monday is the last day of early voting, Stephens said, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Faulkner County Courthouse in Conway.

“I was telling someone the other day, in any election, whether it’s a school election or a presidential election, the vote doesn’t necessarily tell the will of the people; it tells the will of the people who got out and voted. We’re telling people to get out and vote,” he said.

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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