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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo. ( Gavin Lesnick)

Three of Pulaski County's four school districts have put tax-rate questions on the Nov. 3 election ballots, but only the Little Rock School District is seeking a change in its tax structure.

The Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts are seeking no alterations in their school taxes this year but are placing their current millage rates on the ballot as required by law. The Jacksonville/North Pulaski district put its existing 48.3-mill tax rate on the ballot in its March election.

The Little Rock district is asking voters to approve an 18-year extension of 12.4 mills for debt service that are already being collected and are due to expire in 2033. If approved, the millage extension to 2051 would enable the district to issue bonds of nearly $329.2 million that would be used to pay off the district's debt on two 2015 bond issues as well as finance about $205 million more for school building construction, renovation and repairs.

The proposal would not increase a property owner's annual school taxes, but the property owner would pay the tax for additional years.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas »]

That millage is part of the Little Rock district's 46.4-mill tax rate that also covers operating costs, technology and maintenance. The surplus revenue produced each year by the debt service millage may be used by the district for other school purposes.

The district's state-appointed Community Advisory Board voted 4-0 in August to recommend the plan for restructuring the district's building debts and extending the debt payments by 18 years to Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key. Key, who acts in place of a school board in the state-controlled Little Rock district, approved the measure for a public vote.

But Key won't have a say on how the money raised by a voter-approved extension would be spent, Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said last week. That would be up to a newly re-established school board to be elected Nov. 3.

"The state will have no hand in this," Poore told the Community Advisory Board at its online meeting Thursday night. "They will have no hand in making a determination on how the funds will be spent or on what schools. It goes to the local board that everybody is getting ready to elect."

The Arkansas Board of Education has voted to return the district of about 20,000 students to local governance -- with some restrictions -- once a new nine-member school board is elected Nov. 3.

Poore has said that some of the money raised by an extension should be used to rebuild the now-vacant McClellan High on Geyer Springs Road as a replacement for Cloverdale Middle School. That is a commitment the district made in the settlement of a recent federal lawsuit. Other uses include modifications at high school campuses and improvements to school security systems, ventilation systems and classroom technology.

Kelsey Bailey, the district's chief financial officer, said last week that a benefit of issuing the bonds now is that interest rates are unusually low, hovering just above 2%. That would give the district a lower annual debt payment -- about $19 million compared with the current $21.4 million, Bailey told the advisory board.

Support for the proposed extension is divided among the advisory board members as well as the 19 candidates running for the new school board.

Jeff Wood, advisory board chairman and candidate for the board, reiterated last week his reluctance to give an unknown board "a blank check."

Advisory board member Michael Mason, who is running unopposed for the new board, said he is in favor of the extension, enabling the district to continue making capital improvements.

The proposed extension of the 12.4 debt-service mills is similar to a proposal put to voters at a special election in May 2017. That measure was defeated after a contentious campaign that centered around the fact that the district was operating under state control and had been without an elected school board since January 2015.

Jim Ross, who was on the Little Rock School Board until it was dissolved by the state in January 2015 and helped lead the 2017 campaign against the extension, is speaking out against the new proposal on social media and elsewhere.

"I'd love to be able to vote for it, but the reality is we don't know what the money is going to be used for," Ross said last week in an interview. "I'm against it for two reasons. We still don't have an elected board and we don't have a plan."

District leaders are continuing to cite a facilities study done in 2013-14 by consultants -- an evaluation that Ross considers outdated.

"We need a real evaluation with a real board with real community input," he said.

Following the May 2017 defeat of the tax proposal, the district issued second-lien bonds -- which don't require voter approval -- to raise a lesser amount, about $90 million.

That money has been spent for such projects as a part of the the new Southwest High School, the remodeling of Scott Field, and roof replacements and the addition of air conditioning to several school gyms and kitchens, Bailey said.

Elsewhere in Pulaski County and in most districts across the state, districts are putting their existing millage rates on the annual school election ballot without any changes.

Districts are required under Article 14, Section 3, of the Arkansas Constitution to include their tax rates on the ballots in school elections, regardless of whether they are seeking a change.

If there is no proposed change in a tax rate, then a district asks voters to vote on its current rate. In that case, no matter what voters decide, the millage rate will remain at the level last approved by voters.

In North Little Rock, the school tax rate will continue to be 48.3 mills.

And in the Pulaski County Special School District, the rate will continue to be 40.7 mills.

Although the vote tally can't change the tax rates this year, votes on the rates are sometimes viewed as a gauge of public support or dissatisfaction with a school system.


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