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OPINION | JEFF WOOD: A bold future for Little Rock schools

by JEFF WOOD | October 31, 2021 at 2:21 a.m.

On Tuesday, , voters in the Little Rock School District will have an historic opportunity to change the trajectory of public education in this city for generations to come. This election offers citizens a bold vision for our schools by extending--not increasing--the current tax rate to fund significant improvements on existing campuses and build new ones in areas where promises have been too long unfulfilled and where growth has been too long ignored.

In west Little Rock, where parents and grandparents have been begging for years, building a high school is a matter of need for both the residents and the district.

One has to look no further than the 2020 census to know that west Little Rock is our city's most fertile ground for future growth. And if LRSD wants to be competitive and stop its enrollment decline, it must seize this moment to invest in the west.

The recent history of west Little Rock public education has been quite fruitful. Roberts Elementary, a nationally recognized "Blue Ribbon" school, is the district's largest elementary school and its fourth largest school overall. Fulbright and Terry elementary schools are good schools as well, and getting a seat in either is always competitive.

These elementary schools feed Pinnacle View Middle School, which in 2016 stopped LRSD's bleed of middle school students and quickly became the largest middle school in the district. It surpassed its 10-year enrollment projection in its third year, and in its fourth year it earned the state's highest academic rating. Most are surprised by the diverse mosaic of its student body, and its award-winning design hides the fact that it is a converted warehouse. It was all accomplished without raising taxes.

Ninth grade, however, presents a difficult decision for west Little Rock students: where to go for high school? Because there is no traditional LRSD school nearby, lifelong friends and families are scattered among a few LRSD options across town and a plethora of LRSD's competitors in neighboring school districts, private schools, and public charter schools. In fact, some families never enroll in public school at kindergarten because there is no nearby destination for high school.

So imagine the impact of building a large traditional high school similar to the awe-inspiring Southwest High School (likely the finest in Arkansas, which was built without raising taxes) on the land LRSD owns adjacent to the Pinnacle View campus.

There's not a business in America that could say no to west Little Rock based on education quality concerns with a feeder pattern of Roberts/Fulbright to Pinnacle View to West High School. West Little Rock could become an economic juggernaut.

This election gives us the chance to finally deliver just that and to do it without raising taxes.

But make no mistake, the vote on Tuesday isn't just about meeting the demands of the growth in west Little Rock. Students in the southwest part of town equally deserve a worthy middle school. The plans to replace the dilapidated Cloverdale Middle School with a K-8 on the McClellan High School campus are simply astounding.

Central High School students deserve a campus worthy of its status as the most historically significant high school in America. The permanent camp of portable classrooms needs to be replaced with appropriate academic labs, and the athletic complex needs modernization.

Parkview High School students deserve a performing arts center worthy of its mission to be the best performing arts high school in Arkansas.

Dozens of campuses across the city deserve replacements of their leaky roofs and opaque and drafty windows.

This election will finally deliver all of that, without raising taxes.

I would be the last to advocate for a tax increase. In fact, with its current millage rate and constantly growing assessed valuation, the LRSD should never need to raise taxes. And when property values grow because of these new investments, might it be time to consider a tax reduction?

But the truth about this election is that when we wake up on Wednesday, we will be paying the same taxes, no matter the outcome, for the next 12 years. By voting yes, we can extend the current rate for 19 years, finance a $300 million investment in our school infrastructure, and actually have something exciting to show for our money.

Despite years of division, this proposed millage extension has been the one issue that has united long divided factions in the LRSD. It's united champions and opponents of school choice. It's united Republicans and Democrats. It's united private school families and public school families. And for once, it's united every neighborhood.

We all want a public school system that competes at the highest levels for every child in Little Rock. To do that, LRSD must offer facilities on par with--or better than--its competition. So please vote yes in this election, and forge a bold new future for our schools and our city.

Jeff Wood is the father of three Little Rock School District students and represents Zone 9 on the Little Rock School Board.

Print Headline: A bold future for Little Rock schools

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