Fort Smith, Barling officials hear plans on third Fort Smith high school

by The City Wire staff ( 34 views 

City directors from Barling and Fort Smith were given their first opportunity to ask questions regarding plans by the Fort Smith Public Schools to construct a third high school in Chaffee Crossing, an events complex near the airport and realign the district's grades during a joint meeting of the two cities and the Fort Smith School Board following a regularly scheduled meeting of the school board.

Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of the district, started the presentation to the two cities' board of directors by telling the elected officials that the plan decided on by the school board was about having a roadmap for the future.

He said on average, the district had large-scale construction projects about every 50 years, noting the construction of what is now Northside High School in 1928 and Southside High School in 1963. The last new school to be constructed in the district, Gooden added, was in 1986 when Euper Lane Elementary School was built to replace Echols Elementary after its sale to what was then Westark College.

Since that time, he said the district had seen ups and downs in student enrollment, but Gooden noted that enrollment began to show consistent growth and in many years rapid growth which has lead the district to have enrollment studies conducted that have shown as many as 17,500 students enrolled at Fort Smith's various schools by as late as 2030.

"If you look at that projection, it doesn't matter how many years you use. You're going to be there. Those of us who are living today need to be giving some thought, making some preparation to where we want to be at that time," he said.

Gooden also told the city boards that planning for the new school had begun with fervor in about 2009, when the school board determined that additional secondary school space was necessary to meet the needs of the district. While it did not necessarily mean construction of a new high school, Gooden said the "boldest" of the ideas on the table was to build the new school, which would allow the district to move freshman into the high school buildings and relieve overcrowding at the junior highs with the eventual option to relocate sixth graders out of elementary schools when the need arises. All told, he said the option would serve the district's needs for about 20 to 25 years.

"It gives you lots of options with, as we said, one big project," Gooden explained.

Conservative estimates for construction of a new high school place the project at about $65 million, with Gooden previously explaining that the district could seek a millage rate increase from 4.5 mills to 6.5 mils, though he would not commit to a figure when asked by Barling City Director Bill McMahan whether the district had decided how much of an increase to request from voters in an election that could come as early as May 2015.

"The answer is no and the reason is we want to make sure that we can get a real number about the state, how much money we get from the state before we start calculating and throwing a number out there. Because when you throw a number out there, it's set in stone already. We want to wait," Gooden told McMahan.

Fort Smith City Director Keith Lau asked what steps the school board had taken to address concerns from the business community regarding a third Fort Smith high school. The group, including First National Bank President and CEO Sam Sicard, had questioned earlier this year the need for the proposed school and questioned ongoing costs.

"The concern that we have is with all the operational costs of a third high school," Sicard told The City Wire on 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."

Gooden said the school board had hired Preston Smith with Business Information Systems of Kansas City to conduct the study for the district after putting out a request for proposal and receiving submissions.

"Obviously the purpose of the study is to satisfy people who didn't think we'd done our homework before, I suspect. Most of the questions that he's going to answer are things that we've already been through but he's going to a give us a second opinion, if you will. Actually, a third in some cases because we've already had two. But he's going to do a good job of it, I'm confident, and I will be surprised if he validates everything we did because that's what consultants do. We'll get a different opinion. But what we're going to get from him is these are options you have, this is where you're going in the future. It's not unlike consultants that you guys use."

Lau noted that the desire of the school board to raise the millage will come less than a year after the library will have asked for a millage increase, and also noted that the city was likely to raise water and sewer rates later this year as part of its ongoing investment as part of a consent decree in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice associated with the city's violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

With the possibility of a third increase in service fees and taxes on Fort Smith area residents in less than a year, Lau asked Gooden what the district's option B would be should a millage vote fail and a third high school becomes feasibly unrealistic.

"Plan B's adding some classrooms at every one of these campuses, that's plan B. It has to be," Gooden said.

"Keep in mind, you can only put so many students in each classroom," School Board President Jeannie Cole added.

"Yeah, because we're not going to violate the class size standards," Gooden added. "That will be plan B is adding on classrooms at every campus."

Cole noted that the earliest opening for the proposed third high school would be 2018, with the first possible graduating class walking across a stage as early as 2020.