Business, school leaders push for millage increase at citizen forum

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 805 views 

Business and school officials pressed for voter approval of the proposed 5.558-mill increase for the Fort Smith Public School district during a Thursday (April 5) League of River Valley Voters informational forum.

Jason Green, vice-president of human resources at ABB (formerly Baldor), told attendees it was “very important for our community and also for our children, our schools, and our future.”

“We need this millage increase. I think our students deserve it. Our educators do. Our community, our businesses and industries. And families and individuals for many, many years to come will benefit from this,” Green said.

No one spoke in opposition to the millage plan.

Public schools rely on support of taxpayers within the locality to fund operations and facilities. Similar to homeowners borrowing money in the form of a mortgage, a school district borrows to finance the design, construction, expansion, and renovations of schools and facilities. Districts also can seek additional funding for ongoing costs such as technology replacement. A millage increase must be approved by voters, and Fort Smith voters haven’t approved one since 1987.

Fort Smith trails Pulaski County, Rogers, Bentonville, Springdale, and Fayetteville, in both the number of mills (36.5, others range from 40.5-48.5) and revenue generated per mill ($1.449 million, others range from $1.495-$2.508 million). From that grouping, the district’s 14,340 students are the fourth highest enrollment.

As head of the 57-person citizens’ committee behind the research that led to the proposal, Green has worked closely with the district on this as well as the district’s Vision 2023 five-year strategic plan. The committee initially asked for a 6.888-mill increase, but with input from the School Board, whittled that down to the 5.558 number, primarily by reducing the interest rate calculation on loans to 4% from 4.5%, removing staffing recommendations, adding a secure entry at Ramsey Junior High, and reducing costs around the 1:1 student device replacement program and supporting wireless networking.

On Thursday, Green emphasized the increase should be important to all voters, whether they have students in the district or not. Fielding one question on why renters should care about the millage, Green said he recognized the difference between the impact to a homeowner versus renter, “but ultimately we’re all citizens of the community.”

“We may have students within the district, we may have grandchildren within the district, or family and friends who somehow benefit from the district. I think we all have a voice in the process, and we all benefit from the ultimate results of the millage whether you have a student or a connection to the district or not,” Green said, adding the key objective of the millage proposal’s career and technology component “is to make sure that when a student walks across the stage at graduation, they have a career plan and a skill set.”

He continued: “My hope is that their career plan has just as much importance at a future point in time as their transcript. Because if they have those things, their ability to contribute and give back to this community as adults raises exponentially. So I think that’s where we all benefit, whether a renter or a homeowner.”

Also, for singles or childless couples, Green said, there was much at stake.

“I recruit people every day to come to Fort Smith, and in the global economy that we live in, the world does not revolve around Fort Smith anymore when it comes to ABB. People can work virtually in today’s environment. People can work in one location even though their job may be based in another. And part of our job is to make the quality of life in Fort Smith as good as it possibly can be. And education is one of those factors, whether you’re moving from a surrounding community or from outside the state, education is one of the most important things they can consider. So whether you have students within the district or not, I think you want a viable educational system in your community. It helps bring more people to town, it helps raise the value of our property, and it brings businesses and industry to town.”

Green said companies value cities with strong education systems because “you need a quality pipeline of talent to pull from, preferably within your community.”

Also during the forum, Green detailed the district’s financial stewardship, stating that for each dollar spent in the district, 55 cents goes toward classroom instruction while 16 cents supports “auxiliary instruction and support services,” which consist of a literacy and math specialist, guidance and counseling, library media services, nursing services, adult education, preschool, and speech/occupational/physical therapies.

The remaining 29 cents goes toward school meals (5 cents), transportation (2 cents), utilities/maintenance/central support (12 cents) district and campus administration (6 cents), debt service (3 cents), and capital outlay (1 cent). If approved in the May 22 election, the millage would increase to 42.058, and it would go toward the funding of district-wide construction and renovation projects, including $35 million in security upgrades. Additionally, there would be an $825,000 annual technology expense.

On the security front, Fort Smith Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker acknowledged passage of the increase would be vital to meeting the proposed security needs of concern to many since deadly school shootings at Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Ct., to name a couple. Brubaker pointed out security “is a whole third of (the proposal), and we do not have $35 million in efficiencies we can find. We would not be able to do those things.”

The major projects funded by a millage increase break down as follows:
• Safety/security package and walls/doors at elementary schools, $15.865 million, 0.655 mills
• Southside High School and Gym, $43.824 million, 1.81 mills
• Northside High School and Gym, $34.696 million, 1.432 mills
• Career and Technology Center, $13.724 million, 0.567 mills
• Darby Junior High School renovations, $9.664 million, 0.399 mills
• Ramsey Junior High School renovations, $3.046 million, 0.126 mills
• Student Device 1:1 program, $825,000, 0.569 mills

The effect to the average homeowner would be $9.26 per month per $100,000 in real estate value. This would affect “frozen assessment” properties as well.

Voter registration begins on April 22 with early voting running from May 7-21.