Fort Smith business leaders, mayor lend support to school millage proposal

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,051 views 

The Fort Smith Public School District (FSPS) has asked voters to approve a 5.558 millage increase during the May 22 primary election, and several area business and political leaders from outside the district have weighed in with their support.

Jim Walcott, chairman of the Fort Smith Regional Council and executive chairman at Fort Smith-based Weldon, Williams & Lick, said the council would formally endorse the millage vote and encouraged voters to follow suit.

“By supporting the millage as a community and improving the outcomes for all students in the public school system, we help move towards advanced workforce development solutions, taught with technology, in up-to-date facilities and ultimately benefitting the students, area businesses and our economy,” Walcott said in a statement provided to Talk Business & Politics Thursday (March 15).

Council member Rodney Shepard, president of Arvest Bank for the River Valley region, agreed, noting the council “focuses on opportunities for the area where we can see a direct benefit to both economic development and for the quality of place.”

“Increasing the millage will allow the Fort Smith Public Schools to move forward with securing our campuses, increasing the level of technology available and further preparing students for the 21st century workforce. All of their plans directly contribute to making Fort Smith a better place; and for us, that’s smart business,” Shepard said.

At a special meeting March 12, the Fort Smith School Board voted unanimously to pursue the May 22 referendum to fund $120.822 million in financed projects and $825,000 in annual recurring costs, with district-wide safety and security upgrades comprising approximately $35 million, or around one-third, of the total.

Members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors have been hesitant to take a position. Talk Business & Politics has asked Directors George Catsavis, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz, Kevin Settle, and Tracy Pennartz, but either did not receive a response (Settle) or were unsuccessful in obtaining on-the-record responses.

FSPS School Board member Wade Gilkey recently told Talk Business & Politics that past city management resulting in the current $480 million federal consent decree for violations of the Clean Water Act would make passing the proposed millage increase more difficult and called out Director Catsavis for “spreading misleading information” about potential school closures on Facebook.

Tensions aside, outgoing Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders issued his support.

“My children and grandchildren all graduated from Fort Smith schools, so I have no family in (the district) at this time. However, I think the continued improvement of our schools is important for the future of our city,” Sanders said. “It is also a factor in our economic development, as companies considering locating here are very interested in the quality of instruction and structures of our school system. As an individual resident, I support the requested increase in school millage.”

Complementing views the school millage proposal is “good for business,” Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen provided Talk Business & Politics with a “general statement of support” from the Chamber, noting the organization “has historically been a strong supporter of public and private education in our region.”

“Fort Smith Public School leaders have worked hard to improve the district’s finances and have put the district on solid financial footing going forward. Support for their capital plan will continue that trend, while also giving FSPS the financial resources to improve the quality educational programs and services our region needs to compete going forward. Well-educated young people enrich our quality of life, enhance community pride, choose gainful pursuits and are able to find opportunities here at home. They also attract 21st century employers who provide jobs and invest in the future of our community,” the statement read.

Organized opposition to the millage has not formed, but voter approval of the millage faces several hurdles. The most notable 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%.

Another hurdle is the election is held in conjunction with Arkansas’ primary election cycle on May 22. High-profile state and local races – including Jan Morgan challenging Gov. Asa Hutchinson in the GOP primary, and a primary race for the Arkansas Senate District seat once held by Jake Files of Fort Smith – will draw more conservative voters than a typical school special election, requiring a more robust education campaign by supporters of the millage increase.