Construction of the new Mills High and Joe T. Robinson Middle schools in the Pulaski County Special School District are projected to total $101 million, $21 million more than the $80 million approved by the state in March 2016, an attorney for the district said Monday.
Even that $80 million -- $40 million for each campus -- that was proposed by district leaders and approved by the state education commissioner last year did not accord with the $55 million the district committed to a federal judge in 2015 to spend on a new Mills and refurbished Fuller Middle School.
Sam Jones, the Pulaski County Special district's lead counsel in the 34-year-old federal school desegregation lawsuit, told U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. on Monday that "PCSSD will continue to monitor both projects and strongly believes it will comply with the January 12, 2015 order of [the judge]," which envisioned $55 million to be spent on the Mills and Fuller schools.
The district now estimates that it will spend $56 million on the Mills project and $45 million on Robinson Middle, Jones said.
Despite the assurances that the original commitment on Mills and Fuller will be met, the special status report to the judge does not address how the district will absorb the $21 million difference.
Pulaski County Special District Interim Superintendent Janice Warren late Monday afternoon referred questions about the building projects to Denise Palmer, the district's chief financial officer.
"We just recently found this out," Palmer said. "We are working through it to see what we actually owe. We have to see what we have already paid for to see if we truly owe an additional $20 million. There is equipment that we have already bought," she said, adding that architect fees may also be a factor.
Palmer said the district leaders expect to get greater clarity on the expenditures made and what will still need to be purchased by later this week.
Asked if the district will have to dip into bond money recently approved by voters for the $65 million expansion of Sylvan Hills High in Sherwood, Palmer said that has not been discussed by district leaders.
The issue of the Mills and Fuller projects is on the agenda for tonight's 6 p.m. meeting of the School Board for the Pulaski Special district.
Jones sent the nine-page report to Marshall on the construction costs and building disparities between the Mills and Robinson campuses as a follow-up to the notice that district leaders gave the judge in early September about possible concerns with the two projects.
Marshall asked at that time for further explanation. The judge also directed the attorneys for black students -- known as the Joshua intervenors -- and the district's expert in the lawsuit -- Margie Powell -- to follow up the district's report with their own assessments of the matter. Those are due to the judge in the coming weeks.
The Pulaski Special district remains under federal court monitoring in part for its efforts to equalize its school facilities so that schools like Mills and Fuller that are aging and serve a high percentage of black students are comparable to the district's newer Maumelle Middle and High schools, Sylvan Hills Middle and Chenal Elementary, which are in more affluent and predominantly white parts of the district.
The new Robinson Middle School that is under construction, along with the older Robinson Elementary and High schools, are also in a more affluent community along Arkansas 10 in west Pulaski County.
In an effort to equalize the condition of the buildings, leaders of the district told the judge in late 2014 and 2015 that it would build a new Mills High along East Dixon Road in southeast Pulaski County and then renovate the existing Mills campus to become the new campus for Fuller Middle School.
The existing Fuller Middle School on Dixon Road will be demolished. The district is supposed to use state desegregation aid and second-lien bonds to pay for the projects after a proposed tax increase was defeated by voters. The plans for a new Robinson Middle School came a little later.
"It is a virtual certainty that the District will spend at least $55,000,000 constructing a new Mills High School, converting the existing Mills High School to a middle school and fully equipping both facilities to a level at least equivalent to Maumelle High School," Jones wrote to Marshall on Monday.
"At the end of the Mills projects, the District should be in full compliance with this Court's Order of January 12, 2015," Jones also said.
And "When the Mills projects and the Robinson Middle School projects are completed, the Mills projects should be equal to the facilities constructed at Maumelle High School, and the Mills and Robinson projects overall should be substantially equal one to the other."
Both the Mills and Robinson Middle school projects are scheduled to open for students in August 2018.
Jones reported that as of Sept. 12, $20,246,333.25 had been spent on Mills, including a new multipurpose athletic facility. A total of $24,539,970.29 had been spent on Robinson Middle, including its athletic multipurpose facility.
Both athletic indoor facilities are now open and in use, although the Robinson athletic facility opened several weeks ahead of the Mills space.
Robinson High, which is next door to the middle school, had an enrollment of 557 pupils last year, and Mills had 613. But the district calculates that 523 students are or will be using the athletic multipurpose facilities at Robinson compared with just 212 students who are expected to use the multipurpose athletic space at Mills.
The Mills indoor facility is smaller with 45,715 square feet compared with 64,845 square feet at Robinson, which includes an undeveloped second floor. The weight room at Mills has 1,985 square feet compared with 4,699 square feet at Robinson's facility. The office space at Mills is 641 square feet and at Robinson, 1,031 square feet, according to the status report to the judge.
The report to the judge gives plans for adding windows and team-spirit decorations at Mills to make it comparable to Robinson, which has a booster club that paid for some of the decor at that athletic facility.
The report also explains that rock excavation and acceptable waterline tests for bacteria levels resulted in a delay in opening the Mills athletic facility. The state fire marshal would not allow full occupancy of the facility until the fire hydrants were active.
Jones acknowledged in the report that the construction budgets for the Mills and Robinson projects were altered over time through "change orders that were approved" by Derek Scott, who was executive director of operations until his resignation in September, and Jerry Guess, who was the district's superintendent until he was dismissed by the school board in July for reasons not directly related to the school building projects.
Guess, superintendent for six years, was fired after he said he would not work for the district without guidance from the Allen P. Roberts law firm of Camden. The board had fired the law firm and reinstated Jones as its chief legal counsel, a position he held before Guess became superintendent in 2011.
Jones also noted to the judge that architects for Mills were at one point directed to work toward a $35 million construction budget for the new Mills by the district's project director. That figure was changed within one day, Jones said.
On March 15, 2016, Guess and Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key -- who acted as the school board for the district that was under state control for fiscal distress at the time -- approved the recommendation for construction of Mills High and Robinson Middle at a cost of $40 million each or $80 million, Jones wrote.
"By September of 2017, it had become apparent that these sums were inadequate to appropriately fund the Mills projects," Jones said. "As part of this update and evaluation, the Board and the Administration in coordination with the architects and construction companies have determined that at least $55,000,000 will be needed to construct the Mills project to a level that will be equivalent to the Maumelle project and which will be at least equal to the Robinson projects.
"The District currently estimates that these projects combined will likely cost approximately a total of $100 million of which the Mills project will account for approximately $56,000,000 with the Robinson project accounting for approximately $45 million," Jones concluded.
A Section on 10/10/2017
Print Headline: Tab for 2 new county schools put at $21M higher