Cities Face High School Dilemma

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(Click here to see list of the region’s school districts, and here to see a list of private schools.)

Could there soon be a rivalry between the Springdale Gamecocks or Fayetteville Shoats? While the choice of mascots can be debated later, high schools in Northwest Arkansas are facing a dilemma few devoted much thought to a decade ago.

The four largest towns in the area have enjoyed keeping a small-town atmosphere with one public high school. That will change for Springdale in 2005. Rogers has made preliminary plans to do likewise within the next eight years. And Fayetteville and Bentonville are trying to avoid such a move by reshuffling their high school facilities. But even their superintendents admit the time will come when they too must split into separate senior highs.

Janie Darr, Superintendent of Rogers Schools, moved to Rogers about 30 years ago.

“Our school system has more students now than Rogers had residents back then,” Darr said.

Northwest Arkansas’ population explosion is bringing about “a lot of fun” for the school systems, Bentonville Superintendent Gary Compton said, tongue-in-cheek.

“And we’re going to have a lot more growth,” Compton said. “Fayetteville is up about 2 percent growth this year, but Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville are all up around 7 to 9 percent. Our school districts have grown by several thousand. That’s huge for our little corner of the world. There’s no question the boom is happening here.”

Springdale and Rogers are neck and neck among the largest schools in the state. Both are right around 2,400 students at their main campus this fall, more if you include the alternative school figures from off campus.

In its latest data, the Arkansas Activities Association used a three-year school enrollment average to place schools in one of five different classifications — A through AAAAA.

Rogers was tops, with Springdale second and well ahead of No. 3 North Little Rock. Fayetteville was No. 4. Bentonville came in at No. 10. About 21 years ago, Bentonville was a AAA school and Fort Smith Northside was in the then small group of AAAAA programs. But today, Bentonville has more students than Northside, West Memphis and Jonesboro.

“Most research indicates that high school enrollments in the thousands and above are too large,” said Bobby New, superintendent of Fayetteville schools. “Around 700 is the most effective and efficient operation. In large high schools, kids tend to hide themselves. They’re lost in the shuffle.”

Bentonville’s Compton attended a high school in Detroit with 5,000 students. He sees advantages of both one large school and two smaller schools.

“First of all, I don’t think there is a right or wrong here,” Compton said. “Some research out there says smaller is better because there’s more intimacy and connection with students. And if you wish to be in co-curriculars you stand very good chance to participate. Once schools get big it becomes very hard.

“But I also see huge advantages of being big, especially in the area of curricular offerings. We have 135 discreet courses at Bentonville. You may find some high schools in the state that are so small they can’t afford to offer but 30 courses. You could make an argument either way. My own preference would be that I do not want to see Bentonville go to a second separate high school. I would like to see it become as big as physically possible before we ever look at a second high school.”

Rollins said that at some point, a high school is simply too large.

“We want to make sure every student that attends our school can pursue long-term development,” Rollins said. “In an area growing like ours is today, the hope is to not get too conservative in your planning. We have to be forward thinking.”

Construction Issues

Ray Simon, director of the Arkansas Department of Education, said the cost of constructing a new high school facility is one hurdle schools and communities are sometimes reluctant to leap.

“The rule of thumb is it’s 2.5 times the cost to build a high school as opposed to what it cost to build an elementary school,” Simon said. “There are so many specialty classes involved with high schools.”

Springdale’s East Elementary cost over $5 million.

Bentonville moved into its new building in 1999. Rogers did likewise this year. Fayetteville also recently added on to its facilities, and now has access to the former Bates Elementary facility on campus when that school closed in the summer of 2001.

Springdale opened its 11th elementary school this year to go with two middle schools, two junior highs and a high school. (Springdale also has the private Shiloh Christian School). The city will be adding an elementary school every other year through 2010 as well as the new, separate high school in three years. The Springdale school system added 35 new teaching positions this year with an increase of 1,052 students.

Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins said adding the new high school will be expensive, but his city was left with no choice.

“You have the cost of duplicating services,” Rollins said. “There’s additional personnel acquired and more instructional supplies you’ll need, too. But all of that is validated providing services to kids. You have to look at the alternative.”

Northwest Arkansas’ four largest public school districts have an estimated average annual budget of about $61 million. Springdale’s is the largest at an estimated $71.1 million and Bentonville’s is the smallest at $45 million.

The state provides schools with about $4,750 per student, but there is no additional money given to assist with new facilities.

“Keep in kind, building a new building is primarily the responsibility of our citizens,” Rollins said. “The local taxpayers have to take on that burden. And ours have been willing to bear a reasonable level of support for that.”

Fayetteville has another problem it will face with possible future construction of a new high school. There is very little land available around its city limits, and the cost per acre in Fayetteville runs as high as $25,000 on the east side of town. But there are already two elementary schools and one middle school in that area and the traffic is very congested.

A minimum of about 14 acres would be needed for a new high school campus, which means the land alone could run around $350,000. To go farther east or even on the western edge of Fayetteville presents another problem. While the cost of land would be a bit less, there is no sewer service. West Fayetteville will be getting a new sewer within the next two years, which would make it a more likely site for a new high school.

New said Fayetteville “will end up with two high schools,” but added that the conversations have been nothing more than “coffee talk” so far.

“The $300 million [Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation donation] that has been infused into the [University of Arkansas] will push our limits as far as growth,” New said.

Pride vs. Need

Pride could be as much a factor as the financial issues facing the one or two high school system.

When Rogers first did a study in 1997, Darr said, citizens “made it loud and clear they did not want the division of two high schools. The boundary change will be a challenge for all of us. Since we’ve always had just one high school, everybody in Rogers is a Mountaineer [the school mascot].”

Simon said it is foolish to downplay personal feelings about which school in a split will retain the original mascot.

“Many times the high school is what the entire community rallies around,” Simon said. “When you split that allegiance you risk splitting the community. I’m not saying that’s a valid or invalid reason.

“But we don’t want 5,000 kids at the same school. That’s when it becomes more than an economic or political issue. It becomes a practical issue.”

Rollins has been in the Springdale school system for 30 years. He said the community has a “fierce loyalty to our programs.”

“To think there’s going to be two high school football teams, two bands, two choirs … all of that generates a certain amount of emotion,” Rollins said. “But I look at our situation today with 2,400 kids on campus. I don’t have a choice. It’s not a matter if [two schools] causes us to have win or losing records in football.”

New said Northwest Arkansas communities are still made up in large part of those high school alumni … for now.

“As we become more cosmopolitan, people become less interested in one high school,” New said.