Less than a year ago, Little Rock elected its first school board in more than six years. I’m very proud to serve on that board along with eight other smart, dedicated, incredibly hard-working folks from all over the city. Together, we have thrown ourselves into the challenge of transforming public schools in Little Rock, and we are making significant progress.
Since taking office last December, we have gotten the district out of state control. The Little Rock School District (LRSD) was released from Level 5 Intensive Support in July, and the “guardrails” that the state placed on our board were lifted after we demonstrated that LRSD is on the right track academically and financially.
We also took bold action to keep our students and employees safe during Covid. We sued the state for an injunction to block a dangerous and unconstitutional new anti-mask law that put our kids at risk. When we won, it didn’t just benefit our own students but also allowed school districts and government entities across the state to implement common-sense mask requirements. We also provided a $300 vaccination incentive for all employees, held dozens of school-based vaccination clinics, and passed one of the most generous paid Covid-leave policies in the state so that teachers can afford to quarantine without using their accrued sick days. Speaking of teachers, we also passed a budget that will finally allow for a significant three-year pay increase for all district employees, which is long overdue and will help us be more competitive in recruiting and retaining great educators.
As a board member, I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished, but the truth is that our biggest challenge is the one facing us at the ballot box on November 2. Our school buildings need significant repairs. To put it bluntly, some of our facilities are in terrible shape. Little Rock students deserve much better, and that’s why it is crucial that we pass the upcoming millage extension on November 2. We have a new school board, a smart and capable superintendent, and a fantastic amount of community support in terms of volunteers and community partners, but if we truly want to transform our schools, it’s going to take money.
Little Rock has repeatedly voted down similar proposals to extend the current millage based on distrust of the State Board of Education, which chose to take over LRSD in 2015 and dissolve its locally elected board. The previous millage campaigns have been soundly rejected with cries of “no taxation without representation,” an argument that no longer applies now that we have finally regained full local control. Not only does Little Rock now have a strong and very engaged local board, but thanks to the recent census and a state law concerning rezoning of board zones, it looks like all of us will be up for reelection in 2022. Democracy is clearly alive and well in Little Rock, and now that local elections will provide an important mechanism for holding the district accountable for how tax dollars are spent, most folks who opposed the two previous millage campaigns are working hard to get this one passed.
There are two other big differences this time around. First, since one of the criticisms of previous millage-extension campaigns was lack of information about how the money would be spent, our board voted unanimously to adopt a clear and specific list of projects that the millage extension would fund. Second, the list of millage-funded projects is more equitable than previous proposals, providing benefits to schools in all parts of our city.
First on the list is a complete rebuild of the McClellan High School campus to create a stunning and long-overdue K-8 facility that will replace Cloverdale Middle School. Everyone agrees this project must come first, and since the architectural design and planning have already been completed, we are ready to break ground on this project as soon as a successful millage extension provides the necessary funding. The district is clear that we have a moral and legal obligation to prioritize this project above all others.
Next, we have approved an array of other exciting and transformative changes across the district. The millage extension would fund a beautiful new performing arts center at Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, a school that deserves to finally have a world-class facility to showcase their students’ world-class talents.
This plan would also allow us to finally build a new zoned high school to serve up to 1,200 students in West Little Rock. This is a project that residents have been requesting for more than a decade. West Little Rock is an area of rapid population growth where we consistently fill up elementary and middle schools but lose students at the high-school level because we don’t currently offer a traditional zoned high school with sports and extracurriculars.
Next, the millage extension would pay for a new auditorium and field house at Central High as well as important upgrades to roofs, playground equipment, lighting, flooring, and parking lots across the district. If you’ve been to Jefferson, Baseline, or Dunbar recently, you’ll understand just how important these maintenance projects really are.
You’re probably wondering how much these projects are going to cost taxpayers. Here’s the biggest selling point for this millage extension: voting yes will not raise your taxes. In fact, the most important thing you need to know about LRSD’s proposed millage extension is you will be paying the same millage rate whether this proposal passes on November 2 or not.
This is simply an extension of the current millage for an additional period of time, which would allow us to restructure our debt in order to take advantage of favorable interest rates. By doing that, we can generate approximately $300 million to improve our schools.
We are simply asking you to give us the tools we need to transform the Little Rock School District, and doing so will not raise your taxes. Please vote yes to support LRSD on November 2!
Editor’s note: Ali Noland serves as secretary and represents Zone 5 on the Little Rock School Board. The opinions expressed are those of the author.