Fort Smith voters said yes to a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, on Tuesday (May 22) with approximately 62% of voters — around 78% of whom were Republicans, according to the county’s voter turnout numbers — approving the 5.558 millage gain.
The new millage rate will rise to 42.058 from 36.5 that was set in 1987. The first absentee ballots registered on the Sebastian County website at around 7:40 p.m., showing 2,563 votes for the measure and 1,408 against. While the percentages eased back throughout the course of the evening, it was never by enough to put the passage in jeopardy.
Jason Green, vice-president of human resources at ABB/Baldor and one of the business leaders who helped form the proposal along with the rest of the Citizens’ Committee, told Talk Business & Politics even though the results were unofficial, he felt “comfortable” making a statement.
“Our most urgent priority is all the safety and security features and enhancements. That is the top priority, and we hope to have it all implemented by August of 2019.”
After that, the focus will start shifting toward workforce training, specifically the planned Career and Technology Center.
“The first group of kids to benefit from that will still be a few years away, but I think you’ll at least see a change in perception and priority pretty soon.”
Green said he “had a good feeling” going into the vote because there was a “significant” effort leading up to election night on voter turnout.
“We tried hard to educate our voters on the millage proposal, and I think we did that with the number of individuals who turned out to vote. But I knew there were feelings on both sides of the issue, and I wasn’t ready to get comfortable with the results until the end.”
Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen told Talk Business & Politics the vote was “a huge message we’re sending to companies and consultants in other areas of the country,” adding that Fort Smith “deserves to be a part of the future.”
“I’m passionate about the future workforce of this community, and this is a good way to build it. With unemployment around 4%, the pool of people is much smaller than it’s ever been to draw from, and I need more students and people, who have the skill sets of the future. This shows our local companies there is a capacity of individuals we can draw from to do the jobs we need them to do, whether it be manufacturing, healthcare, or IT,” Allen said.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS REACT
Dr. Doug Brubaker, Fort Smith Public Schools (FSPS) Superintendent, said the district wanted “to thank the Fort Smith and Barling communities for their support of Fort Smith Public Schools and the students we serve.”
“We also are grateful for the efforts of so many to get the word out about this ballot question. I am committed to ensuring that our processes and projects are characterized by the high degree of transparency that our community expects. Details about oversight processes and timelines will be shared over the next several weeks,” Brubaker said.
“Of course, I am elated and so proud of the Fort Smith and Barling communities for realizing the importance of this decision,” added Fort Smith Board of Education President Susan McFerran. “We are grateful to the Vision 2023 Strategic Planning volunteers and the Citizens Committee for their work in developing this proposal. We look forward to providing the enhanced safety and security systems, minimizing forced transfers and developing a world-class Career and Technology Center.”
The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. 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 previously agreed safety and security improvements would be priority-one for implementation. The new millage would allow these changes to be completed by the fall of 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.
The city’s two high schools top 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 will 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 is 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 has adequate access to technological tools. The total cost would be $3.3 million over a four-year replacement cycle.