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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key is shown in this file photo.

Forty Arkansas school districts will receive $103.7 million in state funding for 56 campus construction, expansion and system replacement projects in the coming 2019-20 fiscal year.

The three-member Arkansas Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation on Wednesday unanimously approved state funding for the individual projects for districts as large as Springdale, Little Rock, Benton, Cabot, Fort Smith and Arkadelphia, and as small as Earle, Bay and Maynard.

The West Memphis School District is in line to receive the largest amount of state funding in this first year of a two-year funding cycle. The district is scheduled to receive $11.2 million from the state for a new West Junior High School and $11.2 million for a new junior high to replace East and Wonder junior highs.

The newly approved funding is the state's share of the cost of the local district building projects -- a percentage of the total project cost. The state's share is determined by a district's student enrollment and its local property tax wealth, with wealthier districts qualifying for smaller percentages of state building aid or even no state building aid.

The financial aid for school buildings is the result of Arkansas' Academic Facilities Partnership Program. Officials began that program in 2006 to modernize public schools in response to a state Supreme Court decision that had declared Arkansas' public schools inequitable, inadequate and unconstitutional.

Brad Montgomery, director of the state facilities division, told the commission Wednesday that a total of $104.8 million is actually available for the projects in the coming year, but the division that ranks the projects can't fund the next five equally ranked projects on the priority list without exceeding the $104.8 million cap.

The five projects have identical project scores and so all five would have to be funded at the same time to be fair, Montgomery said, at a cost of $2.7 million.

Montgomery added, however, that some school districts that have been approved for funding will be unable to raise their share of their planned building costs or will otherwise change their plans. As a result, those districts will rescind their plans to use state construction money, freeing up funds for the eligible but unfunded projects.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, chairman of the facilities commission, noted that the Lee County School District will be rescinding its previously approved request for $600,000 in partnership fund. The Lee County district was recently taken over by the state for violating state accreditation standards and is operating under the direction of a superintendent appointed by Key.

Bryan Duffie, superintendent of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, said Wednesday that he had anticipated approval of funding for a replacement Jacksonville Middle School and was excited to have that come to fruition.

The district, which is under federal court direction to improve its facilities, is to receive $8,070,347.29 from the state for construction that could total as much as $24 million, not counting furnishings and technology purchases. The district must raise $15 million to $16 million to fully fund the construction.

"We have to squeeze where we can," Duffie said.

The district is seeking voter approval at a May 21 election of an extension of the district's existing debt service property mills as a way to raise that money.

The new middle school is scheduled to open in August 2021 at the same time as an adjoining new elementary school. The district is seeking state partnership money for the elementary school in the 2020-21 school year.

The Little Rock district was the other Pulaski County school district to be approved for partnership funding -- $936,820 for the replacement of Cloverdale Middle School. The district's plan -- approved by Key who acts as a school board in the state-controlled district -- is to build a kindergarten through eighth-grade school at the site of the current McClellan High.

That new school would replace Cloverdale Middle as well as Baseline and Meadowcliff elementaries, Superintendent Mike Poore said Wednesday.

"We are still trying to determine the overall cost of the project. Teams recently met with the architects to help frame the plan," Poore said in an email response to questions. "A funding source has not been identified other than the resource from the state," he added.

The Little Rock district and the other recipient districts will have to meet certain deadlines for receiving the state funding.

A partnership program project agreement must be executed by the school district and the facilities division within 60 days of the commission's vote of approval of the funding. The project must be under construction -- as shown with a signed construction contract -- within 18 months from the commission's approval and must be completed and requests for state reimbursement submitted within four years of the commission's vote.

As for districts across the state, the commission on Wednesday approved nearly $5.8 million for the Springdale School District -- $4 million for additions to Southwest Junior High and $1.8 million for additions and conversions at Central Junior High.

The Prescott School District is in line to receive almost $5.2 million for a new elementary school.

The England School District is approved for nearly $5 million for a replacement elementary school.

Prairie Grove School District is approved to receive $4.7 million for a new seventh- and eighth-grade school. The Genoa Central district will also get about $4.7 million for an addition to the junior high school.

Other projects in line to receive significant state money include Foreman High, $4.3 million. Pea Ridge High School got approved for $3.7 million for replacement of the heating and air condition ventilation system.

Of the total $104.8 million available for the partnership program in 2019-20, there is $41.8 million in newly appropriated funds by the state Legislature, $45.3 million in carry over funds from previous years, and an estimated $17.7 million that is available as school districts pay off their pre-2005 debts and no longer need the state aid they have received for those debts.

A Section on 04/25/2019

Print Headline: 40 school districts score $103M in state building funds

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