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The West Memphis School District is asking voters -- for the first time since 1953 -- for a property tax increase, with the money to be used to help finance the construction of replacement campuses for the district's West and Wonder junior high schools.

The proposed 7.5-mill increase will be voted on in a special election Sept. 10. Early voting begins Sept. 3.

If approved, the new debt service mills will have the effect of raising the district's total school tax rate from 29 mills -- the third-lowest in the state -- to 36.5 mills, which would still fall below the state's average school tax rate, West Memphis Superintendent Jon Collins said Wednesday.

The district that now has about 5,400 students last asked voters for a tax increase in March 66 years ago. That was for 3 mills, and it was approved, Collins said.

A 21-year-old voter in that mid-20th century election would now be 87.

"We have had to do a lot of education on our end about what exactly is a school millage, and what does it pay for, what it is utilized for," Collins said. "But it's been well received. I think our community understands the importance of matching the state partnership [program] funds. I think they understand just how important having a good education system -- a sound, modernized, safe environment for children -- means to the future of this community."

The West Memphis district was approved earlier this year by the Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Commission for a total of $22.4 million in state building funds -- $11.2 million for each of the two junior high building projects.

That state money, however, will be dispersed to the district only if the district can raise the remaining funds for the campuses that are projected to cost $24 million to $26 million each by the time they are to open to students in August 2022.

If the millage increase is approved next month, the district would go from three junior high schools to two, which would require some reconfiguring of school attendance zones. The existing West Junior High was built in 1948. The proposed new West would be built at the existing location on land that has been the site of a junior high stadium.

A site for the proposed new Wonder Junior High has not been finalized, but it would ideally be along Arkansas 70 in the city, Collins said. The current Wonder building was constructed in 1964.

Construction of the two junior highs would constitute Phase 3 of a comprehensive building plan that included a new Bragg and Jackson-Wonder elementary schools, as well as improvements and additions to Faulk, Maddux, Richland, Weaver elementaries and West Memphis High.

Phase I and II of the building plan cost $64.1 million with $39.9 million coming from the state and $24.2 million from the district -- all without a property tax increase. The new Jackson-Wonder Elementary is to open in April.

"You never like to raise taxes," Gary Masner, president of the West Memphis School Board said Wednesday.

"But we do have some schools that need to be replaced," he said, adding that the opportunity to get state funding to help pay for the projects is hard to pass up.

Masner said the district has managed its money well for many years and has nice facilities -- including a performing arts building, an arena and a relatively new surface on the football field -- to show for it.

"We've done a lot without ever having to go to the public for an increase, but this is something we need to do now," the School Board president said. "We need to pass it," he said about the tax increase, "and I believe we will pass it. I believe a majority of people understand the need, and I believe it will pass."

A tax mill is equal to one-tenth of a cent or $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value of personal or real estate property. Property is assessed for tax purposes at 20% of its value. A $100,000 house is assessed at $20,000. A 1-mill tax on that would be $20, or .001 x $20,000.

In the case of the proposed West Memphis tax increase, the owner of a $50,000 home would pay a $75 annual increase. That's because the assessed value of the home is $10,000 and that is multiplied by the proposed 7.5 mills, or .0075 to calculate the increase. The owner of a $100,000 house would see a $150 a year increase in taxes if the proposal is approved by voters.

Metro on 08/15/2019

Print Headline: West Memphis residents to vote on millage rise to pay for schools' construction

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