The Fort Smith Public School District will ask voters for a 5.558 mill increase. At a special meeting Monday (March 12), the Board voted unanimously to pursue a May 22 referendum in a move 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.
Security-wise, the proposal calls for $10.365 million to secure the walls and doors of Barling, Cook, Morrison, and Woods elementary schools. An additional $5.5 million would be allocated for improvements to access controls, alarms, lighting, and accessibility measures across all campuses. The Board agreed that safety and security improvements would be top priority. If passed, the new millage would allow changes to be implemented by fall 2019.
Singled out in the proposal are Darby and Ramsey Junior High Schools, which would receive security-related renovations in the amounts of $9.664 million and $3.046 million, respectively. Those measures would finish in August 2020.
The remainder of the $35 million would go toward security measures at Northside and Southside High Schools.
NORTHSIDE, SOUTHSIDE, AND TECHNOLOGY
The city’s two high schools topped overall spending projects as part of the millage proposal with Southside receiving the largest allocation of $43.824 million and Northside $34.696 million. The two allocations include new competition gymnasiums in the amounts of $15.579 million (Southside) and $13.499 million (Northside).
Southside’s gymnasium would be an extensive renovation while Northside’s would be a full replacement, and both facilities would have the capacity to hold 2,500. The earliest the two high schools would complete their planning and construction of all included projects would be August 2021.
Other noteworthy items include a new $13.724 million Career and Technology Center featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing. The estimated completion date for construction would be August of 2020.
Lastly, the $825,000 in recurring expenses would go toward the district’s student device 1:1 program as part of the annual replacement cycle to ensure each student in grades 3-12 have adequate access to technological tools. The total cost would be $3.3 million over a four-year replacement cycle.
TAX IMPACT, REVENUE REACH
According to the new proposal, which lowers the requested millage increase from an ask of 6.88 mills, the estimated tax impact would be $9.26 per month per $100,000 in real estate value. As Talk Business & Politics previously reported, millage operates separately from “frozen” real estate assessment values, so there would be increases across the board, including for those individuals who have qualified for assessment freezes (i.e., 65-and-older, 100% disabled).
If approved, the millage would go to 42.058 from 36.5. At present, the district trails Pulaski County, Rogers, Bentonville, Springdale, and Fayetteville, which enjoy larger tax bases and generate higher revenue per mill. The totals are as follows:
• Pulaski County, $2.508 million per mill, rate: 40.7
• Rogers, $1.855 million per mill, rate: 41.9
• Bentonville, $1.853 million per mill, rate: 48.5
• Springdale, $1.551 million per mill, rate: 40.5
• Fayetteville, $1.495 million per mill, rate: 45.65
• Fort Smith, $1.449 million per mill, rate: 36.5
BOARD VS. CITY
FSPS Board member Wade Gilkey told Talk Business & Politics he fully supports the millage ask, but noted the “biggest concern is the number.”
Referring to city government’s sewer woes with the estimated $480 million federally mandated consent decree, Gilkey said, “How much of our money that we’re paying per month going to fix those sewers? There has always been this vague fuzziness. What’s it going to? What are you building? What are you providing? And the real pushback or fear that we’re getting is, we’re going to get into the same situation.”
However, unlike city leadership, Gilkey said, the School Board can point to a hard number with specific outcomes. “It’s $9.26 (per month). That’s how much it is per $100,000 (of real estate value). And the real pushback I’ve been getting is, people not understanding that hard number and what all you get from that.”
When asked if city government made the challenge of passing a millage more difficult, Gilkey said, “Yes. Because the answer from some of our elected people down at the city is, now is not the right time. They’ve had 30 years to come up with the right time. What time is it? We’ve got city directors out spreading falsehoods like, we’re closing nine schools or that, if we were to receive this money, you can’t really trust where it’s going to go. You know, it’s gone beyond, now is not a good time to really spread misleading information.”
Gilkey was referring to a recent Facebook post in which City Director George Catsavis was said to have mentioned that six schools would be closing.
Gilkey stopped short of calling a millage vote an uphill battle, but he acknowledged it’s “going to be hard to get that past some people because they’re afraid of the impact. But for them to be able to understand that this is what it is and this is what we’re trying to achieve” will help. “I feel like any time you take on a project like this, there is going to be a lot of hard work involved, and May is going to be here before we know it.
Gilkey added: “It is going to be a challenge to get that message out and get people involved and really convince them that our kids are worth this, our schools are worth it.”