Wednesday, July 05, 2006

TOP STORY >> Strings are attached to funding from state

Leader staff writer

Before state schools see any of the $265.7 million budgeted last Thursday for academic facilities funding, districts are required to sign a seven-page project agreement that includes a recommendation that districts hold architects liable for part of the cost if a project goes over budget because of architect error.

The agreement allows the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation to conduct on-site inspections and review construction plans as well as change orders. Superintendents first heard about the agreement last week during a retreat but have not received copies of the agreement to sign.

“We’ve already had to do a lot of paperwork for the application,” said Belinda Shook, superintendent of the Beebe School District.

“My only complaint with the school funding process has been the amount of paperwork,” Shook added.

The Arkansas school facilities commission approved funding of 1,100 school-construction projects, including $7.8 million for a new cafeteria and physical education building for the Cabot School District, as well as $4.5 million for the new elementary school to be constructed near Campground and Stagecoach roads.

This funding is the largest part of a three-tiered program of nearly $1 billion in school improvements.
Other local districts didn’t apply for or receive the big dollars in this round of facilities funding, with Pulaski County Special School District applying for and receiving about $1.5 million, most of it earmarked for a new elementary school on the west side of the county.

The Lonoke School District received funding for projects totaling about $373,000, and Carlisle’s tentative share should be about $125,000.

The total cost of the projects, including local districts’ share, will be about $600 million. The state’s cost for the projects is $265.7 million over three years. The local districts’ share is based on a wealth index.

The state pays a larger portion of the repairs and expansions for relatively poor districts, a smaller percentage for the wealthier districts. School districts did not receive state aid if the projects were not in a facilities master plan or involve a non-academic building.

Cabot School District received $13 million in funding including $303,916 for the addition of four new classrooms at Northside Elementary as well as funding for several projects on the high school campus such as $294,034 for additional parking spaces and bus drive for the new high school building; $120,506 for an outdoor amphitheater; $42,177 for demolition of old buildings after the new high school opens and $30,126 to remodel the agriculture building into an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps classroom.

The commission decided not to fund a pedestrian walkway over Hwy. 89 for students of both the high school and Cabot Junior High North saying the walkway was not a prudent use of state funding.

Beebe School District was funded $802,597 for its projects including $617,510 for the addition of six classrooms to the front of the junior high school.

For the middle school campus in McRae, the district received $46,556 for an addition to the cafeteria; $36,546 for roof replacement and $19,936 for additional parking.

Beebe Primary School was funded $41,291 to install new flooring for physical education activities and $26,581 to make the doors throughout the building wheelchair accessible. Beebe High School physical education also received $14,177 to install new flooring for physical education activities.

Pulaski County Special School District got about $1.6 million for the state’s portion of virtually everything for which the district applied including $1.5 million for construction of a new elementary school for fourth and fifth graders currently served by aging Baker, Lawson and Robinson elementary schools.

Also included is $32,556 to repair roofs on three Homer Adkins Elementary School classroom buildings and the cafeteria—though the school will be converted to serve only pre-kindergarten students next year, part of the district’s Fiscal Distress Improvement Plan.

The Lonoke District was approved for $373,054 in state funds, most of it for items like making doorways, restrooms and sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or replacing lighting, exit signs and emergency lighting.

About two thirds of the money is earmarked for the Lonoke Primary School, with $97,000 earmarked toward construction of two new classrooms. The primary school also qualified for $40,000 toward creation of 60 new parking spaces.

The old Lonoke Middle School qualified for $48,000 toward asbestos abatement and some demolition. That school will be converted into a vocational technical center when students move into the new middle school after Christmas this year.

The state tentatively signed off on about $125,000 worth of improvements in the Carlisle District, with the state contributing $64,000 toward a new heating system for the elementary school and nearly $20,000 for parking lot improvement.

Among the $30,390 the state will contribute toward improvements at the Carlisle High School, the largest allocation is $7,773 toward renovation — including painting — of the classroom building and gymnasium.
This fiscal year, the commission has approved $600 million in construction related to its facilities- partnership program, $300 million for its transitional program and $71 million for immediate repair needs. That puts school and state appropriations for facilities at $971 million.

The highest state share for a project approved under the partnership program is $9.8 million for a new junior high school at Marion. The lowest is $26 to make a lavatory in the Two Rivers School District handicapped accessible.

The state’s share is $5 million or more on some projects, including the new high school cafeteria and physical education building at Cabot; $9.4 million on remodeling and rebuilding at Rogers High School; $8.7 million on a new high school at Trumann; $5.6 million on a new elementary school at Clarksville; $5.7 million at Dover for a primary school; and $5 million for replacement of middle school classrooms at Pine Bluff Dollarway.

Districts will be allowed to apply for assistance through the partnership program annually.

In addition to the state’s share of $250 million for the projects approved Monday, the commission since October has obligated the state to about $121 million for the other programs.

The Legislature will consider another facilities appropriation during the 2007 session, he said. The 2005 General Assembly created the three facilities programs after an assessment of school buildings proposed about $2 billion in facilities needs.
The immediate repair program was designed to address projects where repairs or construction was needed immediately; the transitional program covers school facility costs from Jan. 1, 2005, to June 30 of this year. The partnership program begins July 1 and continues annually.

Education Commissioner Ken James, Department of Finance and Administration Director Richard Weiss and Mac Dodson, president of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, make up the Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.