State allocates $77M for construction projects in 24 school districts

Work continues Thursday, March 4, 2021, on the construction of Dr. Jim D. Rollins Elementary School of Innovation located at the intersection of East Fletcher Avenue and South Barrington Road in Tontitown.
Work continues Thursday, March 4, 2021, on the construction of Dr. Jim D. Rollins Elementary School of Innovation located at the intersection of East Fletcher Avenue and South Barrington Road in Tontitown.

Twenty-four Arkansas school districts are approved to receive more than $77 million in state funding for construction, expansion and replacement of academic-related spaces on 32 campuses in the coming 2021-22 fiscal year.

The three-member Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation on Thursday unanimously approved the state's share of funding for the projects that range from a dining and kitchen expansion in the White County School District to an elementary physical education space/safe room in the Concord School District to a new elementary school in the Benton district.

The commission gave conditional approval to three additional projects, making those contingent on legislative approval next month for using money from a state restricted reserve fund.

Those projects include $12.8 million in state aid to go toward work at Pine Bluff High School and $15.3 million toward an addition at Springdale's Central Junior High School. The third conditionally funded project is renovation of classroom space in Western Yell County.

The growing 2,300-student Southside School District in Batesville is to receive about $23 million of the $77 million for a $32 million expansion of the elementary, middle, junior high and high schools, with the greatest expansion occurring at the high school.

[DOCUMENT: State-funded school building projects for 2021-23 » arkansasonline.com/430projects/]

Superintendent Roger Rich said district leaders are "extremely" pleased with the commission's action that will enable his district to address "the good problem" of limited space to accommodate enrollment increases.

"We are a growing area, a growing community, and a growing school district," Rich said. "And we have put a lot of time and effort in the last several years planning for this and hoping it would come to fruition for our kids and our community."

The newly approved funding is the state's share of the cost of the district building projects -- a percentage of the total project cost. The state's share is determined by a district's 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.

The Southside district's plans call for demolishing and rebuilding the high school cafeteria as well as creating a new band, art, agriculture and family consumer science classrooms. There will be new physical-education space and a safe room to be used in case of tornadoes or other emergencies.

Classrooms will be added at the campuses where classes have to be held "in cafeterias, on the stage, and in every closet and in every nook and cranny we can find a place," Rich said.

Each campus will be enhanced, he said.

The high school is approved to receive $15.5 million in state aid. The junior high is approved for $3.5 million, the middle school for $2.5 million and the elementary school for nearly $1.3 million.

A decision is still to be made on whether to ask voters living in the district's boundaries for a property-tax increase to help the district raise its share of the construction costs, Rich said. That election, if necessary, would likely be in November, he said.

The district's current millage rate is 40.20 mills.

Completion of the construction projects is about two years away, Rich said.

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 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 funding.

Some of the other newly approved projects for state funding include:

• $8.6 million for additions and replacements at Springdale High School and another $7.3 million for an addition at Springdale's Southeast Junior High.

• $6.3 million for a new elementary school in Benton.

• $5.3 million for additions at the junior high and high school in Batesville.

• $1.8 million for a multipurpose gym and dining space at Kirby High School.

The vote of the commission, made up of Education Secretary Johnny Key, the state's chief financial officer, Larry Walther, and Arkansas Development Finance Authority President Bryan Scoggins, also covered several pages of additional projects that are approved but for which there is not yet funding.

Tim Cain, director of the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, said after the brief meeting that some of those projects could receive funding in the 2021-22 school year if districts with approved funding end up not pursuing their planned projects.

Still other districts, Cain said, have asked that their approved projects receive funding in year two of the two-year, 2021-23 facilities funding cycle. Those approved projects for year two do not yet have funding attached to them.

The $77 million approved Thursday for the the first year of the 2021-23 cycle is less than then the $103.7 million that was available in year one of the 2019-21 cycle.

"We enjoy partnering with local districts and helping students and teachers and the community have good facilities so the kids can get a good quality education," Cain said. The partnership program has been good for the people of Arkansas," he said.

The commission on Thursday also approved catastrophic funds to two districts for damage from a February snowstorm. The commission approved $3,233 toward the $17,886 repair of a covered walkway in the Fordyce School District. The commission members approved $3,194 toward the repair of $166,151 in water damage caused by broken pipes in the Berryville School District.