Superintendent says LRSD is facing about $15 million in budget cuts for the upcoming school year

FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

After spending November asking Little Rock School District residents to generate and react to ideas for saving money and using school campuses more efficiently, Superintendent Jermall Wright and his staff have drafted broad recommendations in eight categories for School Board consideration.

Little Rock School Board members are expected to discuss those proposals that particularly affect Western Hills, Baseline, and Martin Luther King Jr., elementary schools, as well as Cloverdale and Pulaski Heights middle schools and also Hall, Parkview and the new west Little Rock high schools at a 5:30 p.m. Thursday work session in advance of possible votes on Dec. 14.

Wright told the board in October that the district is facing about $15 million in budget cuts for the upcoming 2024-25 school year. That is the result of a declining student enrollment, the need for additional resources at academically struggling schools, and higher interest rates on construction bond debt.

Enrollment in the capital city district declined by about 500 students between 2021-22 and 2022-23 and dropped another 183 students this fall to 19,952 in prekindergarten through 12th grade.

The district is anticipating $284 million in state and local revenue and $54.5 million in federal funding this school year.

Eighty percent to 90% of the budget cuts for 2024-25 are expected to come from personnel positions and 10% to 20% from programs, district leaders have said.

"All children deserve extraordinary, equitable learning experiences and outcomes. We are responsible for making this happen," Wright and his staff wrote in introducing recommendations to the board this week.

"To fulfill our mission, LRSD has a number of critical decisions to make to ensure our district is both learner- centered, educationally competitive, and fiscally sound."

Most of the eight recommendations that are posted to the district's website prior to Thursday's board work session have multiple parts and/or contain options from which the board can select or combine in any final decisions.

"Based on discussion and guidance from the board during the ... work session, the LRSD administration will determine which draft recommendations will become final recommendations to the board," the information for the board states. .

Draft recommendation #1 deals with the Hall High campus in midtown Little Rock. The draft calls for continued work to define and establish the identity of the campus, which next year is to house the combined Hall STEAM Magnet High program and the West High School of Innovation program.

The recommendation also proposes establishing a districtwide welcoming center at Hall, 6700 H St., that would replace the district's student registration office now at 501 Sherman St. Possibly other districtwide offices could also be re-located to Hall.

Draft recommendation #2 deals with the Henderson campus, 401 John Barrow Road, and making it a centralized location for multiple district services and departments, such as adult education and athletics, while still providing space for district events.

Parkview

Options for Parkview Arts and Sciences Magnet High, 2501 John Barrow Road, are the focus of a third recommendation. That includes an option for re-locating Parkview to the new 1,200-seat high school that is in the early stages of construction on Ranch Road in northwest Little Rock. Other options are to renovate and expand the current Parkview campus or renovate and expand the current campus with a link to the Henderson campus.

The fate of Parkview has drawn public interest from those who want the existing campus to stay in place but with renovations and the addition of a football stadium.

"I would like to advocate for Parkview to remain in its current location," Walter Washington, Jr., a parent of two Parkview students, wrote to the board and district staff this week. "I believe that with the right funding, we can update, remodel, and renovate the existing space, including the addition of a football stadium. This approach not only preserves the rich history and community spirit of the school but also makes financial and environmental sense.

Andrea Lewis, a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, has weighed in with district leaders.

"We need Parkview to reside at 2501 John Barrow Rd for many years to come!" Lewis said.

Western Hills

Western Hills Elementary School, 4901 Western Hills Ave., is the topic of another draft recommendation.

"No proposals were submitted that actually brought students into the school," information submitted to the School Board states. "There were several great ideas submitted to enhance the current program ... but with less than 200 students projected to attend in 2024-25 due to the opening of [the new Marian G. Lacey K-8 Academy] we are recommending relocation the k-5 student population to other nearby schools and re-purpose Western Hills."

That plan to re-assign Western Hills pupils to Bale Elementary, 3501 W. 32nd St., could result in adjustments to attendance zones for Bale, Stephens, 3700 W. 18th St., and Wakefield, 75 Westminister Drive, elementaries

The new uses for Western Hills could be an early childhood center, or an early childhood/kindergarten through fifth-grade special education center for special education and/or medically fragile children. Such a program could be made available to families of students on waiting lists for non-district organizations such as Easter Seals.

Pulaski Heights

The fifth recommendation centers on creating one kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school out of the now separate-but-adjoining Pulaski Heights Elementary, 319 N. Pine St., and Pulaski Heights Middle schools.

"This change will align with the other K-8 schools in the district with similar numbers of students (Forest Heights). It will reduce the number of schools in LRSD and save on administrative and administrative support positions," district documents state.

The School Board will have to make decisions on how to proceed with the construction, or not, of a new traditional high school next to Pinnacle View Middle School. In November, the board put on hold a decision on a $153.6 million "guaranteed maximum price," for the school's construction that was originally planned in 2021 to be $85 million. Building costs have escalated nationally since then.

The district is further recommending that Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, 905 Martin Luther King Jr., Drive, become an academy for languages and leadership. The addition of two early childhood education classes is also proposed for children of staff at Arkansas Children's Hospital, which is across King Drive from the elementary school.

"The purpose of MLK Leadership and Language Academy is to provide elementary school students with a rigorous, cultivated, enlightening academic experience that exposes them to leadership, public service, and the opportunity to learn a second language," according to district documents sent to the School Board.

"LRSD is partnering with the Clinton School of Public Service to design a leadership and public service component of the school's curriculum and students will be exposed to three second language options," district leaders are proposing.

The languages would be Spanish and American Sign Language, with a third language to be determined.

"We believe offering a unique elementary program that does not exist anywhere in LRSD can be a viable draw for new families," district leaders wrote.

The district does have experience with a different foreign language model. The district's Gibbs International Studies Magnet Elementary, 1116 W. 16th St., has long offered Spanish, French and German instruction.

An eighth recommendation calls for the School Board to vote on Dec. 14 to officially close Cloverdale Middle, 6300 Hinkson Road, and Baseline Elementary, 3623 Baseline Road, and reassign students to the Marian G. Lacey Academy, 9417 Geyer Springs Road, that will open for the first time in August. The plan for Lacey has called all along for the Lacey School to replace Cloverdale and Baseline schools as well as Meadowcliff Elementary that has already been shut down.

The district is proposing to move the alternative learning education program that is now housed at the former Wilson Elementary, 4015 Stannus St., campus to the Cloverdale Middle School campus.

The Little Rock School Board meetings are broadcast on on the district's YouTube page: www.lrsdlive.com. The district also streams meetings on LRSDTV.org, and broadcasts on Comcast Channel 4 and U-verse Channel 99.

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