CABOT Cabot School District Superintendent Tony Thurman said he isn’t surprised that a 2-mill property-tax increase failed, because of the “constant barrage of misinformation” spread in the community.
The 2-mill property-tax increase proposed in the May 22 election failed by 2,806 votes to 2,091, or 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent.
The district’s millage rate, 39.5, would have increased to 41.5. The 2-mill increase would have generated an estimated $1.3 million a year for a long list of safety measures for the district. The biggest need, and most expensive, was hiring additional security staff, Thurman said.
“We wanted to hire staff who would not only serve in a security role but as mentors and role models for students,” he said.
Thurman said Cabot has one of the lower millage rates among 7A schools — it ranks 10th out of 11 after Fort Smith passed a millage increase on May 22 — and generates less per mill than most schools.
“We are operating very efficiently, performing well academically and provide many opportunities for kids. It’s unfortunate that our patrons didn’t feel that this was a proposal worthy of support at this time,” he said. Thurman added that the district is committed to improving security, but that may force cuts in other areas to pay for the work.
Thurman also said the reason he thinks the request failed was because a sales-tax proposal was developed by county officials as an alternative to the millage “and advertised as ‘more fair’ to taxpayers.”
Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin said the Lonoke County Quorum Court passed a resolution for a 1-cent sales tax, which would pay for school security officers and build a justice center. After four years, three-fourths would sunset, and one-fourth of the cent would continue for maintenance and operation of the jail.
“We felt like at the time — the county did — that a sales-tax option for school security was a much better option than a millage increase,” Erwin said. “At least with a sales-tax proposal, everybody pays,” even people passing through the county.
He said the Quorum Court “supports the school system 100 percent; it’s just that it was going to be funded by a millage increase.
“I didn’t get out here and carry a flag against the millage. I just said, ‘Here are two options: Here’s what the school’s proposing, and here’s what I think is a better option.’”
Erwin said the Quorum Court’s plan, if it votes to put the proposal on the November general-election ballot, is to hire 15 or 16 deputies to provide security for every school in the county, “about 10 spread out over the Cabot system.” He said that when the officers weren’t at school or an event, they’d be “on the street for the [Lonoke County] Sheriff’s Office.”
He said that with the plan, after the three-fourths-cent sales tax sunsets, there would be enough money built up to fund the security officers for years.
Thurman said that as far as being “more fair, I don’t know how anyone can quantify one tax being more fair than another, since taxes impact individuals in many different ways. The unfortunate aspect of this is the fact that passing a sales tax isn’t a guarantee, either, since Arkansas already has the third-highest average sales-tax rate in the United States.”
Erwin said the estimated $8 million a year collected from a sales tax would also be used to build a justice center.
“There is definitely going to have to be some tweaking and specifics, exactly what the money is going to be used for,” he said.
The sales tax would not fund the list of long-term security measures the school wants, the judge said.
“The list that [the school] presented, … there was not enough focus on school security, I think. The money was obviously going to be spent for other things,” Erwin said.
School officials disputed that, including Thurman. His response to rumors of other uses for the millage — including that it would be used to increase his salary — was to reiterate his comment about the “barrage of misinformation that was promulgated in our community.”
The superintendent said the proceeds of the school district’s property-tax increase would have paid for the additional security positions, along with vehicles, and long-term projects that included upgraded fire systems; lighting/cameras with live feeds; key-fob systems; improved communication equipment; portable metal detectors for athletic events, dances and other activities; upgraded cameras on buses; and exterior bus camera-and-monitor systems.
The startup cost of $1 million for the security officers would be used for salaries and benefits, uniforms, radios, training, vehicles, supplies and security cards.
The estimated ongoing annual costs ranged from $850,000 to $2 million for salaries, equipment replacements and more, according to the millage brochure.
The district has four school-resource officers through the Cabot Police Department, one certified law enforcement officer who works solely for the school district and another one who will start July 1, Thurman said.
Erwin said that, ultimately, what he thinks defeated the school’s initiative were the last four words on the ballot proposal: “and for other purposes.”
Thurman said wording on the ballot “is standard and meets statutory requirements.” In fact, he said, those four words refer to the existing debt-service millage that is used to pay off the district’s construction bonds. In school elections, patrons vote on the total millage — which includes what is already in place and any proposed increase — and not only on the increase.
“Unfortunately, it was used in a negative way by those favoring the sales-tax proposal. The fact was that the millage would generate $1.3 million, and our district would spend well in excess of that amount annually on protecting our students and staff.”
The district has improved security already, Thurman said, including adding storefronts, or vestibules, to schools, buzzer-entry systems or both. Visitors can be seen with a camera and must provide identification.
Also, a play area is being moved from the front of a school to the back to improve security. The projects total about $500,000, the superintendent said.
School Board Vice President Sarah Owen said that in addition to the entrance vestibules, all the campuses have exterior cameras in place, but some need to be upgraded.
“It’s something we try to relate to the public. There is no absolute deterrent for an active shooter; there are only methods that delay it and get first responders in motion.”
Owen said she has two children in the school system now and another child who will enter school in two years.
“Just because the millage did not pass does not mean we’re not improving our security measures and updating them,” Owen said.
“We were not completely shocked. Disappointed is a better word,” Owen said about the millage-proposal failure. “It was for safety and security measures and not anything else. … That was the disappointing and surprising part.”
Owen said the board voted unanimously, 7-0, to put the millage issue on the ballot, “really with the understanding that the public would speak. If the public wanted this, they would come out and vote for it.”
She said Lonoke County has a history of poor voter turnout. “More than anything, we were disappointed that this didn’t encourage voters to get out and vote one way or another,” Owen said.
Board member Donna Nash said she was more than disappointed.
“My feelings were hurt when it did not pass because I felt like the people did not trust us to know what we needed,” she said. “Every penny we were getting was going for security. We had brochures printed that showed where every penny was going.”
Nash said Thurman spoke to as many civic clubs and organizations as he could, and board members spoke to every gathering they attended to inform voters of the facts.
Thurman said administrators will analyze the safety proposal and recommend what pieces to implement in the future, which will be included in next year’s operating budget. That might affect current programming, he said, because the district can’t afford to continue what it is offering and add the enhanced security.
“We will be making hard decisions moving forward that will disappoint students, staff and parents, because we must prioritize expenditures for additional safety and security,” he wrote in his blog on the school district’s website.
Nash agreed that cuts may have to be made elsewhere to fund the upgrades.
“We don’t have a choice,” she said. “We can’t do [the security upgrades] till we get some money, whether it’s cutting a program and getting the money there or somebody coming along and giving us some money.
“It is so scary to me, and I think it’s so unfair to kids, to be afraid to go to school. That’s another reason I’m so sorry this did not pass; you can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. I feel that’s an injustice to our kids and teachers.”
Nash said the district is safer now because of the recent improvements the district made.
The district won’t give up on its focus to keep students safe, Owen said.
“Obviously, the safety and security of our students is our No. 1 priority, so we will have to go back to the drawing board. We’re in it for the long haul,” Owen said.
The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is June 19; the next Quorum Court meeting is June 21.
Both school board members and the county judge said the school-safety issue will be discussed.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.