Conventional wisdom suggests voter approval of a millage increase for Fort Smith schools will be tough to obtain, especially in the wake of rising costs citizens pay for the federally mandated $480 million fix of the city’s water and sewer system.
But the business exec who soon will present an almost $120 million school expansion and renovation plan to the school board said “the plan is extremely beneficial to us all.”
An almost $120 million plan to renovate and expand Fort Smith Public School District facilities and programs is set to be presented Feb. 26 to the school board. The plan, approved by a 57-member citizens committee, would raise the school’s millage rate of 35.6 mills by 6.88 mills. The rate has not been raised since 1987.
Following are some of the top items in the citizen’s proposal the board will review.
• $43.824 million (1.924 mills) expansion at Southside High School
• $34.696 million (1.523 mills) expansion at Northside High School
• $13.724 million (0.602 mills) for a new career and technology center
• $9.665 million (0.424 mills) for renovations at Darby Junior High School
• $8.545 million (0.375 mills) for expansion at Barling, Cook and Woods Elementary schools
• $5.5 million (0.241 mills) for safety, security and lighting system upgrades at several schools
• $1.821 million (0.08 mills) expansion at Morrison Elementary
While the school’s millage rate has not changed since 1987, revenue from the rate has risen. Millage revenue was $14.183 million in 1998, rose to $28.929 million in 2000, and reached $40.186 million in 2007. Millage revenue in 2017 was $52.917 million, down 1.35% compared to $53.645 million in 2016.
Student population (K-12) has risen from 13,637 in 2006 to 14,341 in 2016, a 5.16% gain.
‘VARIETY OF NEEDS’
Citizens committee member Jason Green, vice president-human resources for Baldor Electric Co., is presenting the plan to the school board on behalf of the committee. He said his job is not to lobby for support of the plan as presented, but to hand it to the board and let that body decide what they will submit – if anything – for a May 22 election.
“At the end of the day, we need our community to support a millage increase so if that means the millage request is lower than what we proposed and some of the priorities and actions are delayed to a future point in time, I would support that,” Green told Talk Business & Politics.
Green believes the citizens’ plan has three strengths.
• “It is aligned with the strategic plan that was approved by the Board of Education on December 19.”
• “It represents a wide variety of needs, priorities and actions identified during the strategic planning process.”
• “If approved, the investments in our district will not only benefit our students and the district, but the community as a whole for many years to come.”
Even with what he believes is a strong plan, Green said the process did educate him about the many other things students in the district also need.
“However, the things we did propose cover a wide variety of needs with a focus on safety and security, instruction and the learning environment, career planning and technical education, facility upgrades and expansions, technology, and staffing,” Green said.
Wade Gilkey, considered a conservative member of the Fort Smith Public School Board, told Talk Business & Politics his support depends on if the plan is responsible and “prudent.”
“Our schools are a direct example of who we are as a community and what we hope to be in the future. The Citizen Committee recommendation of 6.88 mills includes areas identified as our greatest needs. The Board of Directors now needs to examine this recommendation to ensure the taxpayers of Fort Smith are guaranteed any possible increase is applied in a responsible and prudent manner. I will need to see the committee’s full report before I can support an increase of 6.88 mills,” Gilkey said.
HURDLES TO VOTER APPROVAL
Voter approval of the millage faces three obvious hurdles. The first is a significant sewer rate rise in recent years connected to the federally mandated upgrade of Fort Smith’s sewer system. From 2006 to 2017, average total sewer charges per bill have risen from $16.49 to just under $48, an increase of around 190%. City Administrator Carl Geffken has said rates will rise if the city is not afforded some relief from existing dictates of the mandate.
The second, of course, is the proposed rise in tax rates for real property owners in the school district. On real property valued at $100,000, the millage rate now results in a $730 annual tax. One mill adds $1.67 to the monthly total, five mills would add $8.33, and the almost 7 mill proposal adding $11.67 to the monthly total. A $350 reduction is given to property that qualifies for the Amendment 79 Homestead tax credit.
A third hurdle is the election, if set, would be held with Arkansas’ primary election cycle on May 22. There will be high-profile state and local races – including Jan Morgan challenging Gov. Asa Hutchinson in the GOP primary, and a possible primary race for the Arkansas Senate District seat once held by Jake Files of Fort Smith – that will draw more conservative voters than a typical school special election, requiring a more robust education campaign by supporters of the millage increase.
Another hurdle could include the rise of active, organized opposition. Citizens committee members who wished to remain anonymous told Talk Business & Politics they are concerned millage opposition will come from those still upset about the 2015 change of the Southside High School mascot from “Rebels” to “Mavericks.”
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
It’s not the citizens committee job to actively campaign for what is placed on the ballot, although Green said he knows of some committee members who plan to push for voter approval. He said those advocating for the plan will likely focus on educating residents about “how the proposal would benefit our students, our district and our community.”
“We’ll be asking them to invest in the future of our students and our community so we need to make sure they understand how their tax dollars would be invested and the return they would receive on those investments. Whether you have children or grandchildren in the district or not, we have to help them understand that the plan is extremely beneficial to us all,” Green said.
District Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker told Talk Business & Politics a voter education campaign “will be something a different group of leaders will take on.”
DEBT, MILLAGE COMPARISONS
Literature and data produced by the school district indicate that part of the effort to gain voter approval will include an argument that the school’s millage is low compared to other schools, and the district has been financially prudent as evidence by lower debt than other comparable schools.
For example, the Fort Smith district’s outstanding debt is considerably lower than the top five Arkansas school districts by student population. Fort Smith debt – as of Oct. 31 – was $73.187 million, well below Little Rock ($191.38 million), Springdale ($183.295 million), Bentonville ($281.24 million), and Rogers ($147.505 million).
According to Arkansas’ Assessment Coordination Division, the average millage rate in Sebastian County is 39.27 mills. If the citizens committee plan were approved without change, the Fort Smith School District millage would rise to 43.388 mills. County millage rates range from 44.13 mills in Pulaski County to 29.25 mills in Lee County.
The millage rate in Fort Smith is now below that of other districts in Sebastian County. Following are millage rates for other districts in the county or partially in the county.
• Booneville, 40.2
• Charleston, 37.5
• Greenwood, 40.6
• Hackett, 38
• Lavaca, 41.9
• Mansfield, 40.01
In neighboring Crawford County, the millage rate ranges from 43.4 in Alma to 36 in Cedarville. The Van Buren school millage is 42.6.