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Two new schools, new classrooms and roofs hinge on 12.4 mill tax extension in Little Rock School District election

New schools tied to levy extension by Cynthia Howell | October 24, 2021 at 4:15 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

A kindergarten-through-eighth grade school, a northwest area high school and brick-and-mortar classrooms to replace the portable-building-row at Central High are among the projects to be funded by a proposed 12.4-mill property tax extension, Little Rock School District leaders say.

The capital city district has put on the Nov. 2 school election ballot a proposal to continue the levy of 12.4 debt-service mills beyond their current 2033 expiration date as a way to raise $300 million for two new schools and other campus improvements.

Early voting for the Nov. 2 election on the proposed 19-year millage extension can be done Tuesday through Friday this week and on Nov. 1.

This is the third time in four years that the district is asking voters to extend the tax levy to generate building funds, but it is the first time for the request since the district left state control and has a locally elected School Board.

The proposed extended levy of the 12.4 mills will not result in an increase in annual school taxes now paid by property owners, but the extension would mean that the taxes will have to be paid for more years.

If voters approve, the district would issue $417,825,000 in bonds, the money from which would be used to pay off existing debt at a possibly lower interest rate plus generate $300 million to be used for construction, additions and renovations in the 21,000-student district where the average age of schools tops 60 years.

The extended 12.4 debt-service mills -- part of the district's overall 46.4-mill tax rate -- will enable the district to pay off the bonds.

[SCHOOL ELECTIONS » Interactive chart not appearing above? Click here » arkansasonline.com/2021PulaskiSchools/]

"All the projects are completely needed," said Mac Bell, a parent and co-chairman with Ryan Davis of the millage campaign committee.

Bell said that potentially low interest rates on bond debt will make it possible for the district to accomplish a list of projects that are good for students but might otherwise not be affordable.

"It's going to make a lot of things 21st Century real fast," Bell said. "It's our golden opportunity and it's a time when our city is on the same page. Every corner of the city is advocating for each other," he said, citing support for the extended millage plan from teacher leaders, business organizations and the Little Rock Board of Directors.

REPLACING CLOVERDALE

Superintendent Mike Poore has said the district's top building priority is a replacement campus for Cloverdale Middle School and two elementaries -- Baseline and Meadowcliff -- on the site of the now vacant McClellan High on Geyer Springs Road.

The design for an $85 million Cloverdale replacement -- which was promised in a settlement to a federal lawsuit -- has been completed. Poore said the new school will be "on par" with Pinnacle View Middle and Southwest High, which replaced McClellan.

The artist rendering for the renovated McClellan is on the campaign's website: https://www.lrsdnext.org.

Also on the list to be funded with the proposed bond money is an $85 million, 1,200-seat high school adjacent to Pinnacle View Middle School on Ranch Boulevard. That new high school would incorporate the existing 450-student West High School of Innovation, Poore said, to compete for students in the growing northwest sector of the city.

[RELATED: Full coverage of elections in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/elections/]

There will also be $55 million for the replacement of portable classroom buildings -- about $45 million of which will be spent at the district's landmark Central High, where the school's south side is lined with the portable classrooms.

Central is also to see about $8.5 million in improvements to its athletic field house and to the school's auditorium. The improvements to the athletic facilities will include long-needed restrooms for the baseball field, Poore said.

The design work for the northwest high school, for Central and for some of the other projects is still to be done, depending on the outcome of the election, Poore said. The designs and construction will be done by local companies, the superintendent also said, in consultation with community members, employees and students.

Still other projects that will be tackled should the tax plan be approved include a new roof and restoration of the auditorium at Dunbar Middle School. There will be the renovation of the auditorium at Parkview Magnet High School to a level warranted for a fine arts magnet school, Poore said, and the enhancement of the football field at the former J.A. Fair High School, which will become Parkview's home field. A classroom wing at Hall High will be remodeled for use in teaching science, engineering and technology-related courses.

"You have got to reinvest in buildings, " Poore said about the proposal. "That's what this is about."

He also said that should the proposal fail to win voter approval, the district will have to return to voters in a relatively short time because "we have to protect our assets."

Similar proposed tax extensions in 2017 and in November 2020 were rejected by voters.

Vicki Hatter, president of the Little Rock School Board, told a group at Dunbar last week that the previous two requests for the extended millage came at times when the district was operating under state control without a locally elected School Board.

The district now has a school board -- elected last November and December -- that can hold district staff accountable for the promised facility projects, Hatter said. The board can also be held responsible by voters for the work, she said.

PAY RAISES

The election on a proposed extension of the 12.4 debt-service tax mills comes at a time when the Little Rock School Board is considering across the-board raises for teachers and nonteaching employees. If approved by the employee groups and ultimately the board, the salary for a beginning 190-day teacher with a bachelor's degree will increase from $36,000 to $43,000, retroactive to July 1, and all other steps on the salary schedule for longer tenured teachers with college credits above a master's degree adjusted accordingly. Nonteaching employees are anticipating increases of about 3%.

The raises for this year will cost as much as $11 million.

Increasing annual property values in the district, paired with the savings from reducing employee positions in recent years, make the raises possible, Kelsey Bailey, the district's chief deputy of finance and operations, said. The district has also closed school buildings, selling some and re-purposing others for something other than traditional campuses.

District leaders have further proposed that the starting teacher salary increase to $45,000 in the coming 2022-23 school year and $48,000 for the following 2023-24 year with salaries increased accordingly for longer tenured teachers and those with additional college credit hours. By the third year of the pay plan, a teacher with a master's degree and no experience would earn $51,691. A teacher with a master's degree plus 30 college hours and at least 21 years of experience would earn $81,116.

The money generated by extending the 12.4 debt-service mills is restricted to facilities and can't be used for salaries, Bailey said.

If the proposed tax extension, however, is defeated by voters, the district won't be able to do major projects but will have to use some of its operating funds for necessary facility improvements, he said, which would lessen the operating fund money available for salaries and other operating expenses.

The 21,000-student district has projected revenue and expenditures of about $340 million with projected reserves of about $34 million.

Print Headline: Projects at stake in LRSD election

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