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Pulaski County school district plans partnerships with businesses

by Cynthia Howell | September 5, 2022 at 8:36 a.m.
Wilbur D. Mills University Studies High School on East Dixon Road in the Pulaski County Special School District is shown in this July 28, 2020 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)


Pulaski County Special School District leaders are in talks with local businesses and at least one utility about locating parts of their operations on high school campuses not only to benefit the businesses but also to ease student access to internships and career opportunities.

Possible partnerships between the 12,000-student district and operations such as Central Arkansas Water and Lexicon Inc., a structural steel fabrication company, were highlighted last week at two district-organized community meetings.

The sessions at Maumelle and Mills University Studies high schools were for providing status reports on plans for the school expansions and improvements that were made possible by voters' approval last November of a funding plan.

The Pulaski County Special district is on the brink of at least $80 million in construction projects not only at the Maumelle and Mills campuses but also at Robinson High and three elementary schools: Baker, College Station and Harris. The Sylvan Hills High band room is also one of the planned projects. Robinson High is the largest of the projects at a cost of $35 million.

A growing number of partnerships between the schools and businesses is expected in coming years throughout Pulaski County.

The county's four traditional public school systems, in conjunction with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, have adopted the Ford Next Generation Learning model of blending high school academics and career education to transform high schools into career-themed academies.

Implementation of the career academies has been slowed in some cases by the covid-19 pandemic, but that has worked in favor of the Pulaski County Special district, Superintendent Charles McNulty said last week. The district can better tie together the career academies with building plans.

"In the best way, it is a perfect storm, and we are able to adjust and adapt as we move forward with the [career] academies," McNulty said. "I'm real excited about our partners and I'm excited about what we are doing for our students."

Preliminary plans are for Central Arkansas Water to use as many as seven acres to build an employees' training facility on the Maumelle campus, McNulty said. The site would not only serve employees but give Maumelle High students access to internships and the ability to acquire industry certifications, which could translate into jobs or scholarships to higher education institutions.

"They are amazing partners and we have others in the wings that are just as exciting," McNulty said about other businesses.

Lexicon Inc. is one of those. Representatives of the structural steel fabrication company and the district are looking at the Mills campus as a possible location for a Lexicon shop, which could make industry-related training and certificates available for students, Curtis Johnson, the district's executive director of operations, said.

Johnson suggested a 10,000-square-foot Lexicon building would mean a $3.5 million investment on the Mills' site. The district has put the Lexicon leaders in touch with architects working on the planned expansion of Mills.

"We believe it would be a great partnership because it would give kids hands-on opportunities to gain skills sets and get their certifications while they are still in school," Johnson said.

Voters last Nov. 2 approved a plan to raise money to build campus additions and make other campus improvements -- without a property tax increase or an extension of the current debt service mills beyond 2048.

Architects -- WER Architects/Planners and WDD Architects of Little Rock -- along with construction managers have since been hired and the design work is underway. Some projects -- Maumelle and Mills -- are further along than others.

Johnson said the timeline is to complete designs by Nov. 1, get state agency approvals of the plans after that, and begin work on the sites in early 2023. Community meetings will be held to share the design plans for each campus as they near completion.

A recent wrinkle in the planning process, however, has been the rapidly escalating cost of building supplies, Johnson said at the meeting at Mills.

Right now construction costs are 40% higher than originally anticipated, Johnson said. What has been projected to be a $19 million addition of 10 classrooms, a 2,200-seat two-level arena, a softball field and a renovated ROTC building at Mills Universities Studies High is now closer to $27 million, Johnson said.

Efforts will be made to reduce those costs in the design process as well as in the bidding by companies for the construction jobs, Johnson said.


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