Pulaski County school board to weigh $15M construction plan at Mills High

A plan to spend as much as $15 million for a building addition and a sports field at Mills University Studies High School is on the agenda for action tonight by the School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District.

If approved by the board at the 6 p.m. meeting, the proposed construction plan -- including 10 classrooms, a sports arena and a softball field -- will be submitted to Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. by an Aug. 1 deadline.

"When we present it to the board, that's not the final iteration of it because we have to present it to Judge Marshall," Superintendent Charles McNulty said Monday about the plan.

"It's basically a framework of the broad expectation of the results we want," McNulty said.

The judge in a May 6 order in a long-running federal school desegregation lawsuit called for the Pulaski County Special district to propose to him a plan to "square up" inequities between the Mills' campus, which is in a more heavily Black residential section of the district, and Robinson Middle School, which is in a more affluent, predominantly white residential area.

The two schools were built at the same time and opened to students in August 2019.

Marshall said in May that both buildings are "excellent facilities," but he called Robinson "superior."

"[I]f Mills High gets an A, Robinson Middle gets an A++," the judge wrote.

District leaders are proposing a four-part plan for Mills:

• 10 new classrooms.

• A 2,200-seat, tournament-capable arena.

• A softball field.

• Improvements to the existing Reserve Officers Training Corps building, which is a cement block building separate from the main Mills building and predates the construction of the main building.

McNulty said Monday that the arena and classrooms would likely be attached to the main building at Mills. The arena, softball field and classrooms would all be built to standards set by the Arkansas Athletics Association or the state of Arkansas. The classrooms would be built to accommodate ever-changing technology needs, he said. The ROTC building would be brought up to standards so it can be used effectively for students.

Mills has an existing gymnasium for 800 to 1,000 people, but it isn't large enough to host state tournaments, and it has a practice gym.

A new arena, plus the existing gyms, would give the southwest section of the district the opportunity to host a variety of events.

In his order, Marshall did not require specific projects or the spending of a minimum or maximum amount of money at Mills.

"The court is looking to the district to supply the specifics and provide direction," McNulty and his staff told the School Board in a memorandum.

The judge did direct the district to consult with the McClendon intervenors, who represent the class of all black students in the district and who last year challenged the district's assurances that it had met its desegregation obligations in regard to equal facilities.

As to the four components of the proposal, district leaders told the board that "if the plan is too minimal, the intervenors may attack it and/or the court may reject it. If the plan is too ambitious, it runs the risk of being too big to fund."

In devising the plan, district leaders said they have consulted with stakeholders and community leaders and worked with its financial advisor, Jack Truemper, who is a senior vice president at Stephens Inc.

In regard to the funding for the building, district leaders are asking the School Board tonight to authorize the district to apply to the Arkansas Board of Education to issue second-lien bonds to raise $15,375,000 for the multi-purpose facility. Of that, $15 million is for construction, and the remaining funds will pay for related fees.

"Any remaining funds may be used for other capital projects and equipment purchases," the second-lien bond application states.

The issue of second-lien bonds as a way to raise money does not require approval of voters at an election. The district would repay the bond debt over time with funds from tax collections not already obligated for other expenses.

McNulty said Monday that the second-lien bond issue is meant to assure the judge that the district has resources to expand Mills High. However, the district may turn to money raised by a possible extension of property tax mills dedicated to bond debt payments for Mills. That would require a vote by the public.

He anticipates the board deciding in August whether to ask voters for the millage extension.

"Of course no one can predict with certainty what Judge Marshall will or will not approve," district leaders wrote to the School Board. "But given the buy-in from stakeholders and community leaders, and the lack of objection received from intervenors, this seems like both a plan that the community would accept as 'squaring up' inequity as well as one that the Administration believes could be funded."

Mills, 1205 E. Dixon Road, was built to help meet the district's obligation to equalize the condition of its school buildings.

To that end, the district pledged to spend $55 million to build a new Mills High campus and convert what was Mills High into Mills Middle School, replacing the old Fuller Middle that was demolished.

But then Robinson Middle School, 21201 Cantrell Road, was rebuilt, and the plans for Mills High were squeezed, Marshall said in his May 6 order.

"For example, classroom size was reduced to the state minimum. Hallways shrunk in width and three feet in height. Overall capacity was reduced from seven hundred fifty students to seven hundred," said Marshall, who has toured the Mills High and Middle campuses as well as Robinson Middle.