Faced with budget cuts of up to $15 million beginning in the 2024-25 school year, Little Rock Superintendent Jermall Wright is asking the community at large for proposals on how to achieve savings.
The request for online ideas and proposals from members of the public will go out through multiple channels today and will be collected through 5 p.m. Nov. 3, Wright told the School Board on Thursday. The request for proposals will include data about all schools, including their enrollment, capacity, renovation history and maintenance needs.
The ideas will be posted online for the public to view and to respond to, Wright said. There will also be a series of public forums between Nov. 8 and Nov. 14 to get feedback.
District administrators will evaluate the ideas and rate them as feasible, partially feasible or not feasible, and make recommendations to the board on how to proceed during the board's December work session. That will be done with the goal of the board acting on recommendations at its December business meeting.
"I want to exhaust all possibilities and options before I bring something to the board," Wright said about the request for ideas. "I don't want to shortchange our community or to believe they don't have something that we may or may not have thought of."
The announcement Thursday of the plans to request proposals from the public tied with a more focused discussion on how to complete the construction of a new comprehensive high school for 1,200 students on Ranch Boulevard next to Pinnacle View Middle School.
At issue is whether the existing West High School of Innovation that has about 300 students should remain in operation on site while the new school is built around it or whether the School of Innovation should be temporarily housed at Hall STEAM Magnet High School until the new school opens -- possibly in the fall of 2026.
Patrick Schroeder, president for Baldwin & Shell Construction Co.'s central Arkansas division, told the board that his company has experience building on an occupied site but doing so will add at least $1.5 million to $4 million to the costs, depending upon any unforeseen circumstances. The timing and moving of utilities and dirt and general construction at an active campus has the potential to extend the project by three months, Schroeder said.
The School Board is expected to get a guaranteed maximum price for building the high school -- that will be complete with a sports arena, and football, baseball and softball fields -- at its meeting in November.
The original estimate for the campus was $85 million, with money made possible by voters who approved the extension of debt service mills.
Kelsey Bailey, the district's chief deputy for business and operations, told the board Thursday that construction costs have increased by 40% to 60% in the past couple of years and that the price for the new school will be above $85 million.
Wright told the board that the district's need to cut $15 million from its budget in 2024-25 includes $7.9 million from general operating expenses plus a need for $6.5 million for payment of construction bond debt. As much as 90% of the cuts will have to come from personnel and 10% to 20% will have to come from school district programs.
Contributing to the financial woes, Wright said, are the district's declining enrollment, increased interest rates on debt, additional support for the district's priority or D- and F-graded schools and expanded alternative education programs for students who are not successful in traditional school settings.
The capital city's district declined by about 500 students between 2021-22 and 2022-23 and has dropped another 183 students this fall to 19,952 in prekindergarten through 12th grade.
Wright's call for budget-cutting comes at a time when the district is planning to open the new Marian G. Lacey K-8 Academy on Geyer Springs Road. That school will replace Cloverdale Middle as well as Baseline and Meadowcliff elementaries. The Meadowcliff students have been attending Western Hills Elementary this year. Their move to the new school will leave Meadowcliff under-enrolled, making it a target for a change.
Other schools that are being considered for changes include Martin Luther King Elementary near Arkansas Children's Hospital. Wright also said that the district can only afford one small high school but has two -- Hall STEAM Magnet and West School of Innovation.
Board member Vicki Hatter told the superintendent that the open-ended call for ideas is too broad a measure and asked for more specifics "rather than throwing darts."
Board members Greg Adams and Leigh Ann Wilson looked at it differently.
"This invites people to look at the whole big picture," Adams said. "That's what we have to do. I don't know what to predict but it is worth trying."