Members of the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education along with district administrators and local dignitaries gathered Monday (Oct. 28) afternoon on the front lawn of Southside High school to break ground on the first phase of a $35 million, multi-phase construction project for the school.
“After months of careful planning, we are excited to kick off these transformative construction and renovation projects at Southside High School. We want to thank members of the Southside community in advance for their patience as we begin to ‘turn dirt’ in the process of completing this important work,” said Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent.
The construction project, which will change the look of the high school significantly, are expected to take 20 months. Workers with Turn Key Construction Management have started fencing the western side of the Southside campus to protect students and the community during the construction period, a media release said. With the assistance of the FSPS Police Department, school officials will reroute traffic patterns with new drop-off and pick up points for parents and bus traffic effective Monday.
Parents and visitors can access the main building and office through the doors on the east side of the building between the music department and the current gym. Parents may drop students off and pick them up at points in traffic lanes routed through the east parking lots. Bus lanes will be routed through the west parking lots. Students riding a bus will be dropped off near the indoor activity center. Access points will likely change as different phases of the overall project are completed between now and the expected completion date in August 2021, the news release said.
The SHS project will include a 12-classroom freshman center addition and new competition gym with seating for at least 2,300 and an integrated storm shelter, along with a new standalone storm shelter, cafeteria renovation, media center renovation, new administrative office addition and possible South Gym renovation with a construction budget of $35 million.
A ground breaking ceremony will be Nov. 11 for similar renovations at Northside High School. The NHS project will include a 12-classroom freshman center addition, a new secure entry that will lead to new administration offices, a new competition gym with seating for at least 2,300 plus an integrated storm shelter, cafeteria renovation and more. The construction budget for that project is $29 million.
At the school board’s regular meeting, which followed the groundbreaking, board members were updated on building projects including the number of seats in the new gyms at both high schools. Initial plans showed disproportionate seating at the gyms, with Northside gym having more seats than Southside’s. The gyms also did not have enough backed individual seating to meet approval of some board members. New plans show each gym will have 834 backed individual seats that run full length of the gym on both sides from baseline to baseline. Second tier seating on both sides will be basic bleacher seating. Each gym will have seating for 2,328 during regular use with the ability to add 500 additional seats for special events, such as graduation, said George Watts with Hoar Program Management (HPM) of Dallas, the project manager hired by the school district.
Fort Smith voters approved a 5.558 millage increase for Fort Smith public schools in 2018. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. Other noteworthy items to be funded with the millage is a new $13.724 million Career and Technology Center featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing and the additions and improvements to both high schools.
FSPS received a $1.4 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help build the district’s Career Education Technology Center.
The facility, which should open in 2021, will feature specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines.
The former Hutcheson shoe facility, a 181,710-square-foot building that sits on almost 17 acres at the corner of Zero Street and Painter Lane in east Fort Smith, was donated to FSPS for use as the center in February by the estate of William Hutcheson Jr., saving the district at least $3 million that had been budgeted to buy an existing building.
Brubaker told board members Monday that the district will also receive a $750,000 grant from the Windgate Foundation for fine arts programs at the center, ensuring dedication to the A in STEAM, Brubaker said.
STUDENT MEDIA POLICY
The board also unanimously approved the first reading of a newly revised student media policy that gives students the right to “exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” in student media. Per district standards, the policy will be presented for a second reading at the Nov. 18 regular board meeting. The new policy is the district’s own policy created after months of work, the district’s attorney Marshall Ney said.
“I think it is the best one in the state,” Ney said.
The FSPS board approved new student policies May 20 that included an update to the district’s student publication policy. At the July 8 called board meeting, the board agreed to update the student handbook to reflect the new policies. The problem is the new school publication policy violated state law.
The new student publication policies, approved by the Fort Smith School Board in May and added to the student handbook in July, state all publications supported financially by the school or published in conjunction with a class are considered school-sponsored publications and as such “do not provide a forum for public expression.”
However, Act 912, enacted into law earlier this year, changed state law to ensure that “students may exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Also, both the old state law and Act 912 state that school media policies should be “developed in conjunction with the student media advisors and the appropriate school administrators,” said Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director.
In August, district employees and administration met to rewrite the policy and bring it into compliance with state law. Ney presented two versions of a policy to the group for discussion in August. Susan Colyer, Southside High School journalism teacher, voiced concerns about a sentence found in the both versions: “Student Media, as well as the content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorial review of the District’s administration, whose actions shall be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns and adhere to the following limitations …”
Colyer said the provision could lead the way to prior restraint or censorship. Concerns were also voiced that if administration decided to review all student media content prior to publication it could lead to delays and, especially in the case of school yearbooks, could lead to missed deadlines.
The new policy states that student media may be regulated to “prohibit writings which are, in the opinion of communications determined by the appropriate teacher and/or student media advisor to be ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
This version puts supervision of student media back under student media advisors and notes that “truth, fairness, accuracy, and responsibility are essential to the practice of journalism.” Wording concerning editorial control by administration was stricken from the document.
“As we have been working on changes, we have asked the community to be patient with us,” Brubaker said. “I think we have achieved a real milestone here.”