Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Barbara Warren made a surprise disclosure to patrons during her annual report to the public inside McFadden Gymnasium -- a different site for a new Pine Bluff High School has been proposed.
Warren offered a suggestion that the new campus be built at the site of the former Belair Elementary School on Commerce Road. Warren said the idea came from district leaders after it was announced in an August stakeholder meeting a state legislative board approved a funding partnership for an estimated $22 million to $23 million campus to be constructed at the present site on West 11th Avenue.
"It's not a decision," Warren said. "We've had some conversations -- and, keep in mind, starting July 1 it's been a lot happening. It's not decided, and keep in mind, this is part of the process of getting feedback."
Warren said she presented the idea at the annual report to gauge the public's feedback. The district is also accepting public comments at bit.ly/FacilitiesPublicComment.
Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, told patrons that $12 million toward the academic portion of the project has already been funded from the state. While a blueprint for the proposed campus at Belair includes athletic facilities, those would have to be paid for by district funds, Warren said.
"We are not able to use partnership funds for those [athletic facilities]," Warren said. "We would have to have community support in the way of them supporting our extension of bonds and another millage. Someone said, 'Hey, let's look at all phases.' That costs a lot, but if our community will commit to it, I think that would be beautiful."
A construction timeline has not been announced, as Warren also revealed that district officials are considering how they would like to see schools aligned in the future.
The makeup of the district's nine active campuses -- including the three former Dollarway School District buildings that were annexed into the Pine Bluff School District on July 1 -- will remain the same for the 2022-23 school year, Smith said.
Should a new Pine Bluff High School be constructed at the Belair site, it would place the campus closer to Saracen Casino to facilitate a partnership between the district and entertainment venue.
"When we talk about hospitality, food services and accounting and a variety of different things in trying to strengthen career and technical education, there are a variety of things they are doing," Warren said. "We're really talking about workforce opportunities. There are a variety of things where being closer could really help, and of course, you can do that across town; don't get me wrong. It'd be much easier to bus people over quicker."
Mattie Collins, a retired Pine Bluff High School teacher, asked Warren if she asked for public comment about the proposed site before it was introduced. Warren did not answer yes or no, but she reiterated the proposal was presented to draw public comments at the public report and online, adding she conversed with 21 district leaders in December about the idea.
As Warren confirmed that school officials have talked about possibly combining campuses for certain grade levels beyond 2022-23, district parent Trammell Howell asked about such rumors floating in the community.
"For accuracy's sake, last year the state Board of Education said those [nine active] schools would remain open," Warren said. "As we assess what we need to do next, decisions have to be made. We have to look at funds, stewardship, efficiency and the like. The conversations -- and keeping in mind, y'all, July 1 was our first day as a combined district -- we've been working hard and the district has been doing a great job, but here we are six or seven months later trying to assess where we need to be.
Warren said it was important to determine what course of action to take to enhance both the academic and fiscal standing of the district.
"Long story short, it hasn't been a lengthy amount of time, but you're always going to be thinking about what does the configuration need to be. In our case, we've been thinking about, how do we benefit our students? How do we make certain that we are efficient fiscally, and that if we do make an adjustment as it relates to our proposed facilities plan, how do we need to respond? Do we need to shift children away while we're starting the work of new construction?
"We do plan to have community input and give opportunities for feedback just like we did tonight, but ideas have to start somewhere. So, that's what we've done. A vision has to be cast, and then you can get some feedback."
See Saturday's Pine Bluff Commercial for more coverage of the PBSD annual report to the public.