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The Pulaski County Special School District is gearing up to build a new Mills University Studies High School campus that would open within two or three years and help the district meet its desegregation obligations.

The district received Arkansas Board of Education approval this month to issue $56 million in second-lien bonds to pay for both the replacement of the high school and the remodeling of the existing Mills campus to become the new Fuller Middle School -- all in the southeast section of Pulaski County.

Attorneys are making preparations to issue the bonds in the next few days. But even in advance of receiving that money, the district likely will use existing funds to begin clearing land for the new high school on the Dixon Road property where just a section of the former Fuller Elementary still stands, Superintendent Jerry Guess said.

"If we spend this year getting the site cleared and the architectural drawings done, maybe we can get it done in two years," Guess said about the timing for a new Mills High. "I don't know if that is reasonable. My goal is to get it done as quickly as possible. I want to see it done for the kids in that area."

School district insiders know the Mills building plan as "Plan B" in the district's efforts to meet its obligations in the three-decades-old federal school desegregation case.

Earlier this year, Guess and his staff in the state-controlled school system put Plan A to the voters -- a 5.6-mill property-tax increase for a $221 million, districtwide capital improvement program..

The money from that proposed tax increase would have financed projects such as new Mills and Robinson high schools, two new elementary schools, a large expansion to Sylvan Hills High and the moving of Fuller and Robinson middle schools to former high school sites.

The tax proposal and, in essence, Plan A were soundly defeated in a May 12 election.

But before the election, district leaders told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the presiding judge in the desegregation lawsuit, that the district would build a replacement for Mills High and move Fuller Middle to the current Mills campus regardless of the outcome of the tax vote.

That promise was made in an effort to correct the inequitable conditions of the district's schools. The district has an almost new high school and two almost new middle schools in the more affluent Maumelle and Sherwood communities. In contrast, the much older Mills and Fuller campuses are in a section of the district that has a greater concentration of black students and students from low-income families.

"It's what we believe will demonstrate our commitment to being unitary in facilities," Guess said about building Mills anew and replacing Fuller.

Guess said he and his staff are committed to working with Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, the lead attorney for the black students known as the Joshua intervenors in the desegregation case.

"We're doing this because we want to serve the kids in the southeast quadrant," Guess said. "I don't think there is anyone that represents the interests of those kids more than John does, as evidenced by the history in the case."

Derek Scott, the district's executive director of operations, said Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson has been selected as the architectural firm for the project and Baldwin and Shell Construction Co. will be the construction manager.

There will be conversations with many people to make the final decisions on the new high school.

"We want to meet with the Joshua intervenors and representatives of the school, and make sure we are all in agreement and that our planning meets everybody's expectations," Scott said.

The Pulaski County Special district is the only one of the three school districts in the original federal lawsuit that is still subject to federal court supervision of its efforts to comply with its desegregation plan. The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts were declared unitary and released from court supervision.

The Pulaski County Special district -- and the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski district that will be detached from the Pulaski County Special district July 1 -- are being monitored by the court in regard to correcting inequities in the condition of school buildings, student achievement, student discipline, staffing and the district's own monitoring procedures.

Marshall, the federal judge, said Thursday that he wants a report on the district's plans for equalizing its school buildings when he conducts a status conference Dec. 16 with attorneys in the case.

"Plan B, Dr. Guess? Right?" the judge asked. "'No millage, but here's what we are going to do instead?'" he asked about a report.

"I know the county district has been focused on Jacksonville detachment issues and has been preoccupied with that. But I'm sure that you have also -- behind the scenes -- been thinking about and doing work on, 'How are we going to make these improvements under our Plan B.'

"I want to know what the county is doing to make progress down the road," Marshall said.

The existing Mills campus -- named for the late Wilbur D. Mills, a 2nd District Arkansas congressman -- is at 1205 E. Dixon Road. The new high school campus will be constructed on property behind Fuller Middle, 808 E. Dixon Road, which is to the west of the current Mills High and closer to the Interstate 530 and Dixon Road intersection.

Once the new Mills facility is built for at least 700 students and Fuller Middle School is moved into the older facility, the Fuller Middle School campus will be demolished.

Guess said costs for each of the campuses has not been determined. He said the cost of converting the existing Mills campus for Fuller Middle should be minimal because the district already has addressed needs regarding the school's roof and heating and air conditioning systems.

Part of the overall project will include redoing the athletic facilities for the schools, including the high school football field and track, as well as the baseball and softball fields, Scott said. Any new high school would have to include two gymnasiums, as well.

"If you look across the district and you look at creating equitable facilities, athletic facilities are part of what has been upgraded at all the other places," Scott said. "It's our intention to have comparable facilities."

Guess said new and remodeled campuses will be a boon to southeast Pulaski County.

"I believe it is going to be a shot in the arm for people in those communities," Guess said. "There are people moving in there -- in Wrightsville and up Arch Street -- there are people moving into those communities who will benefit from a new high school. I think it is going to be a great plus for the area."

Metro on 08/23/2015

Print Headline: Bonds now to finance new school


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