North Little Rock School District gets feedback on millage proposal

Forum comments mixed on middle school, Ole Main capital improvements

FILE — Kids are shown sitting against the glass in the cafeteria between classes at North Little Rock High School in this 2020 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
FILE — Kids are shown sitting against the glass in the cafeteria between classes at North Little Rock High School in this 2020 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The North Little Rock School District has hosted a series of community forums over the last three weeks to discuss a possible reconstruction of its middle school and a renovation of the “Ole Main” high school building.

The proposal includes $3.5 million needed to start the capital improvement project. This comes after electrical fires, water main breaks, the aging of the school and a change in educational needs, superintendent Greg Pilewski said.

The district’s School Board has yet to vote on including a renovation of Ole Main.

Brian Brown, the district’s chief financial officer, said other revenue sources include $34 million from the district’s building fund, $12 million from bond refinances and $20.8 million from state partnership funding.

To receive the state funding, voters must agree to the millage. The district board has yet to vote on whether to ask for the millage in the November election or in the election in March of 2024.

The state would require that the middle school reconstruction start by Jan. 20, 2025, and be completed by July 20, 2027.

The total expenditure for potential projects, including the demolition of several old district buildings, comes to $91.3 million.

The district has chosen Taggart Architects, a previous partner, to complete the new construction and renovation. The district is not required to bid out to other companies and decided to bypass a request for qualifications process, Brown said.

If voters approve the proposal, an extra school millage of 2.6 mills per household over 30 years would be instated.

The current millage per year is 48.3; the proposed millage would be 50.9 per year. The difference per month amounts to $7.37.

This calculation is based on the average household in North Little Rock with an appraised value of $170,000, Scott Beardsley, president of First Security Finance, said.

“Most districts will borrow for 30 years like most people borrow their home mortgage for 30 years,” he explained. “Because after that point, there’s really no savings to stretch or pay back. The millage required to pay off in five years would probably be four or five times what we’re asking for.” District community members expressed concern after the last capital improvement project from 2012 to 2016 in which a new middle school and Ole Main renovation were planned.

The middle school was not approved for state partnership funding at the time and other projects were not funded at the level the district expected.

The district reduced expenditures by removing the middle school from the 2012 project and decided to make minor renovations instead. Ole Main was also removed from the renovation plans.

Now, district leaders are promising to ensure that Ole Main remains a part of the campus and is back as a functional learning space.

The state will only provide funding for a renovation of the old building if it is for educational purposes, Brown explained.

Beardsley and James Meyer, project designer at Taggart, reassured parents and alumni that Ole Main would be preserved.

“It needs to be educational and useful, frankly, that’s what it ought to be,” Meyer said. “So how can we make this a school again? And this proposal is kind of the best plan at the moment. If anyone else has great ideas, let’s hear ’em, because I think that’s something that we want to workshop and that the district is committed to.” Beardsley said “a variety of things” have been done to save Ole Main.

“It is important to the district, it’s important to people who have lived here all their lives,” he said. “It’s what we want to have on our postcards. So, anything that the district, school board and I have worked on is how do we save Ole Main and how do we make it functional for today? The place where we are is the only use that is legal and meets all the different requirements the school district has to operate under to put kids back in that building and get the state to partner with us.” If the district board decides to put a renovation of Ole Main in the requested millage, the basement, first, second and third floors would be used for the Center of Excellence, a charter school within the high school.

The penthouse of the building would be used for the robotics team to host competitions and work on projects.

The middle school campus would be completely reconstructed into either one contained campus with the sixth, seventh and eighth grade classrooms in one building, or as four individual buildings, similar to how it is set up now.

“That’s going to be dependent on what the public and the faculty tell us and also what the site utilities tell us,” Meyer said. “There’s a big fiber corridor through the middle of campus, but no one’s quite sure where it is, and so finding the right way to sequence construction and not mess up internet access is going to be a big deal.” The gym, library, farm-to-table lunchroom and special services will also need to be reconstructed, he added.

Teachers and faculty at a previous meeting at the middle school were “excited” for a new facility and offered ideas such as more than one gym, Meyer said.

“The district’s first priority is replacing the middle school,” Meyer said. “After that is figuring out a good plan for Ole Main. So that’s just what we’re figuring out is, we have some folks who have really deep-seated feelings and emotions that needed to be worked with on that plan.” Superintendent Pilewski addressed a question about how many students the district expects it may lose due to the reconstruction of the middle school.

He acknowledged that over the last 10 years, the district has lost more than 1,500 students.

“All of this is driven, when we look at our priorities, about increasing enrollment,” he said. “… When you look at any building construction, you may lose some students, you may, but the opposite side of that is attracting families because it’s a brand-new facility.” Pilewski also pointed out how the outdoor garden will be a central part of the new campus and “attract even more students.” Dot Williams, board president, emphasized what the parents and district community want will be the deciding factor on what changes will be made.

“We are open, we have not voted on it, you are the last decision,” she said. “When the survey come out … We work for you, what you want. … You have a voice of what you want in schools because we appreciate all of you.” Sherry Harper, a graduate of the district, said she is concerned about spending the money due to the number of students the district has lost to private schools.

Suzanne Jackson, another graduate of the district, said she is also concerned about the millage. A group of students from her class of 1964 met that day to plan their 60th-year reunion, she added.

“One of the girls said, ‘My heart is in the school,’ and everybody around the table agreed,” she said. “So I think that’s where we come from. We also want to see the school district to do well and prosper, but we also feel a bond with [Ole Main] and we’d like to see it utilized.” Jackson said she wasn’t aware that the middle school was in “such bad shape,” but she believes the board is trying to do what is best for the community even if it’s not an easy decision.

Dan Bradden, a parent in the district, said he is concerned about the millage passing if the community doesn’t come together to vote.

“I am more for kids, I get it,” he said. “I know what they need and I want them to be put in the best position to be successful.” Bradden brought up the idea of putting a multicultural center or an indoor sports complex in place of the old police and court buildings instead of a parking lot.

“You could put classrooms in there,” he said. “Go look at Jacksonville: Yes, it’s a field-house, but they got other things that people can do. They think it’s just for sports; it’s not just for sports.” Elise Hicks, another parent, said she’s excited that one of her students would get to enjoy the new middle school campus.

“I’ll be voting for [the millage] — I’m kind of concerned about them not passing it and losing that state funding,” she said.

Compared to the last time the district asked for a millage, fewer parents are affected because not all the elementary schools are included, Hicks added, but she understood that adding the Ole Main and demolition projects will get it done all at once.

“I guess it would be harder to pass the millage now and then ask for another one to do the rest of it later,” she said. “I get that, too.” Hicks will have to “mull it over” before she makes a decision to vote for both the middle school and Ole Main projects.

April Ambrose, a parent of a second-grader at Crestwood, said her daughter could be one of the first students in the new middle school.

She said she thinks about this new middle school “a little bit differently” since she has a background in green building consulting and now does workforce development for energy and environment jobs.

“They’ve done so many studies on the impact of buildings on student success, to their test scores and their health,” Ambrose explained. “And so I want my kid in a healthy building and one that has good day-lighting and good access to new resources. So there’s no doubt in my mind that we ought to pass the millage.” The renovation at Ole Main may not be warranted at this stage, she added.

“I also have concerns about funding a charter school with public school money,” Ambrose said. “I would rather see the public school, middle school enhanced.” More funding could be acquired through the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law, she noted.

“They want to wait and look at it once we make sure we have the money,” Ambrose said. “But I think by that point that the once-in-a-generation opportunity will have passed, so I’m going to connect and see if I can help pass along what I’m seeing.” The district will send out a survey for community feedback after the last forum on Nov. 6.

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