Arkansas school plans for new building

$300,000 grant completes funding for new academic facility to open in 2019

For the past year, the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts had been searching for a way to pay for a new academic building.

But it kept hitting roadblocks.

Now, thanks in part to a $300,000 grant from the Oaklawn Foundation -- the largest donation the school has ever received -- the Hot Springs campus will have its first new academic building since it opened to high school juniors and seniors in 1993. The Creativity and Innovation Complex is scheduled to open to the 230 students in spring 2019 -- but with a few changes from the original plans.

The campus' main building is the nearly 90-year-old former St. Joseph's Hospital building on 200 Whittington Ave. Through the years, school officials have moved out of that space and an arm known as the Cedar Street wing, but they still hold classes in a second arm called the Pine Street wing.

They had been looking for the best solution to move from the 44,000-square-foot wing into the Creativity and Innovation Complex. And in 2015, school Director Corey Alderdice thought he had the perfect plan: piggybacking on a bond issue with another school. Until he found out they couldn't.

In 1991, legislators started what was then called the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences at a time when some 15 other similar schools across the nation emerged, a move to address the growing interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM -- fields.

Some two years later, the only public residential high school in the state opened its doors to students and started leasing its campus space from the city of Hot Springs for $1 annually.

In 2004, the school -- which was under the direction of the Arkansas Department of Education -- changed hands to come under the University of Arkansas System umbrella, and state legislators tacked the arts onto the school's mission and name.

Now, the school is a "nonformula" higher education entity, meaning it is funded mostly by state appropriations.

"Unlike traditional K-12 districts, we don't have a local millage available to us," Alderdice said. "Unlike our higher ed counterparts, we don't have a robust tuition and fee structure for the bonds. In many respects, we face the same thing charter schools face."

Finding a source of funding for a big project wasn't an issue until 2008, when the campus and community started thinking about the school's future. The first step, though, was to build new student dormitories.

Then-Gov. Mike Beebe had staked a claim to federal funds and secured some $6 million in gubernatorial discretionary funds. On top of that, the school received several million dollars in state general improvement funds and institutional reserves, as well as some $1.3 million through the New Markets Tax Credit program through a five-year operating lease that ends June 30.

In 2012, the $18.5 million Student Center opened with 80,000 square feet of residence halls, a library, offices, and a kitchen and dining area.

With that priority out of the way, the school turned to the next step: a new classroom building.

Groups revisited the campus master plan with the hope of including more room for computer science, art and community space. In November 2015, Alderdice went before the UA System board of trustees with the proposal to add to the bond issue of another school in the system.

"As we worked with the system office over the past year, we looked at five scenarios," Alderdice said. "Unfortunately, at every turn, the general counsel's office said, 'No, that doesn't look like it would be possible.' The main issue there is state revenue cannot be pledged for interest on debt. Over the course of the summer, we started looking at the resources we had on hand."

Alderdice began carving out pieces of funding. The school had already secured $500,000 in general improvement funds from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. It will have about $250,000 annually freed up from the end of the New Markets Tax Credit program and its matching-fund requirement. It had $1.5 million in carry-over funds from previous fiscal years and is expecting another $200,000 in carryover funds from this fiscal year, Alderdice said.

The school had another $500,000 in cash reserves and planned to use $475,000 from its annual $8.5 million in state appropriations in fiscal 2018 and 2019 for the project. School officials looked to make up the remaining $600,000 in private funds. That included more than $100,000 from family and friends of Dan Fredinburg, a Google executive and school alumnus who died in 2015 when an avalanche crashed into his Mount Everest base camp, killing 22. The avalanche was caused by an earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 8,000.

And last month, the school announced the $300,000 grant from the Oaklawn Foundation, which seeks to provide educational opportunities for Garland County residents and seniors.

The foundation receives money annually from Oaklawn Racing and Gaming and typically awards about $325,000 per year in scholarships for nontraditional students, said Dennis Smith, the foundation board's vice chairman. It also provides funding to the United Way of Garland County for student emergency needs, he said. It doles out other funds for a senior initiative program and caregiver training program, both operated by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Giving some back to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and Arts was a natural fit, Smith said, adding that the foundation board looked at other nonprofits in the area.

"Over the years, we've accumulated a fair amount of net assets, and we felt it was appropriate to get money back to the community," he said. "It was a pretty easy decision to make. The amount we will donate was the amount they needed to complete the funding."

The building will cost an estimated $4.5 million, down from the $8.25 million school leaders pitched in 2015.

The new 20,000-square-foot complex -- the same size as originally planned -- will be housed in what is now a parking lot adjacent to the current administrative building.

It will have a technology center with two computer science classrooms, a digital arts lab, two flexible-use classrooms, a maker's space for things such as 3-D printing, and network and information technology infrastructure.

It will also have a community center -- a first of its kind for the campus.

But the school will not have an arts center, something school leaders have wanted and something they will prioritize once the Creativity and Innovation Complex is done, Alderdice said.

When that's done, the city can tear down the old hospital complex, making room for a completely new entry to downtown Hot Springs. The school is a neighbor of the former Majestic Hotel, which was brought down after a fire and is now city-owned.

"From our perspective, [the two buildings] are somewhat interlinked," said Lance Spicer, the city's assistant city manager and city clerk. "The old hospital itself, they are no longer using, and it's essentially vacant property. The Majestic itself was also vacant property. It's such a prominent corner of Hot Springs."

He added that the vacant Majestic Hotel had been "an eyesore" for years, and now grass is growing.

Spicer said that in February or March, the city will start a process involving the community -- with the help of consultants at Kansas State University -- to develop a vision on what to place in the older properties, he said.

"When it comes to downtown as a whole, the development and the interest -- and really just the strength of which it's operating -- is pretty tremendous," Spicer said. "Especially when you think about two short years ago, we did have some vacancies. When you look at it now, I don't think there are any vacant stores downtown; there's a tremendous growth in the sales tax. What we're experiencing is something that we're feeling very good and promising for 2017."

Metro on 01/08/2017