Business group questions need for a third Fort Smith high school (Updated)

story by Ryan Saylor

Editor's note: The story is updated with a statement from Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools.

Plans for a third Fort Smith high school are coming under more scrutiny after a Monday (Feb. 24) school board meeting in which a group of concerned residents requested more due diligence be done before the district ultimately decides that another high school is needed.

Plans for a third Fort Smith high school have been discussed for some time, though a formal pitch for the more than $65 million high school was made at a January school board meeting.

At the time, Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of schools, said the district needed a new high school due to continued enrollment increases in the district coupled with an eventual plan to re-align the schools to have freshman be on high school campuses instead of the current configuration, which places freshman in the city's junior high schools.

According to Gooden, the district's current population of 14,313 students was expected to blossom to about 17,000 students by the year 2023, which would necessitate the re-alignment.

Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, was among a group to express concerns with the plan. One of the primary points Sicard makes is financial.

"The concern that we have is with all the operational costs of a third high school," he told The City Wire on Tuesday (Feb. 25). "We don't know what the operational costs of Northside and Southside (High Schools) are, but we guess it's a pretty large number. As students increase, you'll increase operational costs."

Sicard said the concern among himself and about 20 others, including several prominent members of the Fort Smith business community, include the costs not only of a building, but also funding extracurricular facilities, such as gyms and activity centers, as well as administrative offices. The additional costs trickle down all the way to office staff and coaches — all taking away from funding that could go toward academics if the district did not construct a new high school.

The group also expressed concern in a memo to the school board about the impact that developing a third high school in Chaffee Crossing could have on the rest of the community.

"If you drive around town, there are all of these areas throughout the center of the city where you see a lot of vacant homes," Sicard said. "If you built a state-of-the-art high school out on the periphery of our community, it will continue to attract people to that area and result in a lot of vacant houses in the core of our city and declining real estate values and declining appearances of many of the properties in the core of our city."

In addition to the two major concerns of costs and deterioration due to outgrowth, Sicard said the group is also concerned about the district's enrollment projections.

"Some of us in the business community have trouble understanding how enrollment will be as rapid as they are saying (it will be) based on what we are seeing in the economy," he said. "We're questioning whether those projections…we're not doubting the continued growth or (need for more) capacity, but it surprises us that it would be that aggressive."

In order to ensure the district makes the best decision regarding future building needs, Sicard proposed that the district bring in an outside consultant to do a facilities assessment for the district to find out if it building another high school would be in the district's best interest or if expanding the existing schools would be more beneficial. He said he and his business colleagues were asking such questions after comparing Fort Smith to similar-sized districts across the state.

According to figures provided by the Arkansas Department of Education, Fort Smith is on par with most of the state's largest districts in terms of the number of students enrolled and the number of high schools in each district. Following is a list of the state's largest districts with their corresponding number of high schools (2012-2013 school year):
• Little Rock Public Schools: 23,676 students, five high schools;
• Springdale Public Schools: 20,542 students, two high schools;
• Pulaski County Special School District: 17,060 students, five high schools;
• Bentonville Public Schools: 15,081 students, one high school (plans are underway for a second high school);
• Rogers Public Schools: 14,757 students, two high schools;
• Fort Smith Public Schools: 14,313 students, two high schools;
• Cabot Public Schools: 10,172 students, one high school;
• Conway Public Schools: 9,733 students, one high school; and
• Fayetteville Public Schools: 9.421 students, one high school.

Sicard said while it may appear that he and his fellow business leaders are against school funding or the millage increase that could come before voters sometime in the next year or two, it is simply not the case. His group just wants to see the most money possible spent on academics, "to see it used in a way to take us to the next level in way of academic achievement for our students."

He said the fact that the board is taking the time to conduct due diligence was appreciated.

"We don't think they're wrong for (proposing) the third high school, we just have concerns and want all alternatives researched and evaluated due to the concern we have," Sicard said. "We're really grateful that Dr. Gooden and the (school) board were willing to listen to our concerns and pursue a study. We're thankful that they're responsive to some of the concerns in the community and we appreciate that."

Gooden said he understands and welcomes the review.

“The concerns relative to the emerging plans for an additional high school are reasonable in view of the long-term impact such a project can have on the Fort Smith Public Schools and the community,” Gooden said in a statement. “Any investment of public resources merits careful study by both the elected school board, community leaders and the parents whose children and grandchildren will benefit from school programs and facilities.”

Business leaders who signed the memo to the school board include: Bobby Aldridge, Mike Barr, Shannon Blatt, Kent Blochberger, Phillip Bryant, Gary Campbell, Steve Clark, Brandon Cox, Sen. Jake Files, Richard Griffin, Jason Green, Melissa Haynesworth, Scott McClain, Rep. George McGill, Sam Sicard, Pastor Kevin Thompson, Jim Walcott, and Fred Williams.