guest commentary from Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools
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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. 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.
What may seem like a bold move today, will likely become a reasonable expectation when viewed as a past decision after another quarter-century. There is no doubt that the addition of Southside High School fifty years ago was seen by some as a move to the outskirts of the city. However, today that location is a center of activity and growth.
Slow and steady growth in enrollment at Fort Smith Public School campuses has prompted the Board of Education to heighten its study of future options for managing space and programs in the District’s junior and senior high schools. These discussions involve more than just classroom space and include a study of a variety of organizational options and instructional program choices for the future.
This slow and steady growth in enrollment may be the most difficult to address, since these trends lack the dramatic increases in student numbers which make an immediate solution essential and obvious. The modest growth allows those who are not directly involved to miss the clear trends which call for planning and action for the future. While FSPS has grown almost 1,500 students during the last decade, the distribution of the growth makes it unnoticeable to many.
Nonetheless, the Board of Education is continuing to study the options with an eye toward the future of Fort Smith Public Schools and the region. Multiple enrollment projections have been developed by District staff as well as outside consultants. Their projections validate the growth trends. While the timeline is variable, the Board of Education has chosen a long-term solution which will take FSPS and the community into the future.
The Board annually reviews building needs at every campus and has continued to address space and program requirements throughout the school district with additions and renovations on many local campuses. In 2007, a comprehensive review of growth trends and future projections began and has continued in several subsequent updates. The Board determined that future requirements called for more space for high school and junior high students — to match the already completed additions in elementary schools. They directed the Superintendent to identify several options for consideration. In 2010, four possible sites for a future secondary school were identified. The list was pared to two sites which the Board of Education visited. They ultimately selected a site at Chaffee Crossing as the best in view of population growth, terrain and cost. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority committed an 80-acre site for a future school to the District. Subsequent to a study of possible campus designs, the acreage was expanded to 98 acres.
The Board of Education also considered a number of options which would address additional space while looking to a long-term future. Several options included a range from “doing nothing” to using temporary buildings in response to growth. Both these options were rejected as inconsistent with best practice. Other more permanent options included building space at each current campus, realigning grades to include grade 9 on high school campuses, adding a separate campus for ninth-grade students, and adding an additional high school for grades 9-12 with realignment of current junior and senior high school student assignments. Each option was reviewed with regard to pros and cons.
After considerable study, the tentative preferred option includes building a new campus on the Chaffee Crossing property and dividing the total grade 9-12 population among three campuses using a method to be determined. Were this option implemented now, each campus would serve more than 1,400 students. This configuration would also allow District administrators the option of moving grade 6 onto existing junior high campuses. This 6-8 grade configuration would align the District’s grades with current national testing practices.
An important consideration of any plan is continuing attention to current campuses in terms of improvements. Also tied to this entire progress is a review of secondary school program options to give future students a maximum advantage educationally as they prepare for their futures. A staff and community task force is currently looking at possibilities. Every option is subject to change.
Another important part of the planning involves a district-wide events complex which is separate from a school campus. This complex would include a performing arts center to serve music, theatre and other similar events as well as a multipurpose arena-type facility for indoor sports, graduations and other large group events. By combining these facilities on a common site, shared parking and other development costs will realize economies of scale.
Operating costs are always a concern for any school facility. However, as the student population continues to grow the Foundation Aid formula by which Arkansas schools are funded will support operation costs relative to student enrollment growth.
The Board of Education has directed the Superintendent to pursue an independent study of facility plans in the context of student population growth and future space and program requirements. This process will repeat much of the work which has been done previously from another perspective. While these improvements involve costs, they can be viewed as providing long-term choices to serve the community.
Change — like school enrollment growth — is slow. However, inaction today will ensure a lack of preparedness in future years. The Board of Education is determined to take action today with an eye to the future. It is worthy of note that any dramatic change of this type would not be operational until 2018 or beyond. But, as the Board noted initially, our ability to adequately and appropriately serve the needs of future Fort Smith students requires planning and action today.