Wednesday, January 05, 2011

TOP STORY > >Charter school seeking infusion of funds

Leader senior staff writer

The Lighthouse Academy plans apparently are grander than the announced expansion on to Little Rock Air Force Base for a new middle school. Plans also include borrowing $12 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by the Arkansas Development Finance Authority in 2013 for construction and expansion, according to documents submitted to the state Board of Education in support of the school’s application to amend its charter.

The state Education Board will consider amending the Lighthouse charter at its January meeting on Monday.

The proposed 25-year, 6.5 percent loan would also refinance current debt for the existing $3.3 million school house and build a new facility to house 500 students in grades 7-12, adjacent to the existing building on North First Street in Jacksonville.

According to Mike Wilson, whose family has been a major Lighthouse donor, the building on base may be temporary while the First Street campus is expanded, but the base could also be the anchor of a second Lighthouse campus.

The five-year lease on the officers club is renewable. Wilson said the charter-school expansion is not a threat to an eventual Jacksonville school district.

“I think they are consistent with each other,” he said, and judging by letters of support from supporters of a stand-alone Jacksonville district, others feel that way as well.

However, changes proposed in the charter would increase enrollment from the current 644-student maximum in K-7 to 1,019 students, K-12 by 2016, and allow the opening of the second campus located on the base.

That would break down into a 244-student lower academy, a 375-student upper academy and a 400-student college prep academy.

In addition to opening a middle-school Lighthouse branch on campus, plans call for leasing a modular building for 2012-14, while acquiring adjacent land to the North First Street campus for expansion. A permanent gym and classrooms for grades 7-12 would be built there, ready for the 2015 fiscal year, according to the submitted documents.

The increased student enrollment would leverage enough minimum-foundation aid and other state and federal aid to cover the debt service, according to the submitted documents.

More immediately, two companies with vested interest in Little Rock Air Force Base housing have pledged $600,000, and Jacksonville’s Wilson family another $200,000, toward renovating the base’s former officers club for use as the second location of the city’s Lighthouse Academy charter school by August, according to documents filed with the state Education Department in support of expanding the academy.

Construction, design and furnishing the old officers club for use as a school is projected to cost $950,000, but the charter school already has received commitments of gifts and loans totaling $875,000.

James C. Hunt, president and CEO of Hunt Development Group, has pledged a gift of $300,000, available this year. Hunt’s group is doing the actual construction and renovation of 1,000 living units on the base.

Hunt’s partner, Pinnacle Management, will manage the housing for 50 years, with the two companies splitting the profits.

Steve Harrelson, president and CEO of Pinnacle, signed a letter committing another $300,000 to the project in the name of American Management Services, doing business as Pinnacle Management.

In addition to being good corporate citizens, Hunt and Pinnacle may have an eye on keeping high occupancy in the units they build and manage on base.

Poor facilities and a bad reputation for academics and discipline have driven many airbase families to live off base so their children could attend Cabot-area schools.

Wilson and his wife Sammye have pledged $100,000 toward the project, and Kathy Roberts, on behalf of the Kenneth Pat Wilson and Ruth Nixon Wilson charitable trust, pledged another $100,000. Roberts’ brothers are Mike and Larry Wilson.

Finally, the Wilsons’ bank, First Arkansas Bank and Trust, has extended a $75,000 loan for the project, according to a letter signed by Rachel McCain, senior vice president.

“We are pleased to confirm our continued support of our locally controlled public charter schools with the expectation that your efforts will produce future great results for our young scholars,” Mike Wilson and his wife wrote in their Nov. 18 commitment letter.

In a letter of support, Larry Wilson writes, “To say that there is a need for such a school would be an understatement. One only has to review the recent history at Northwood Middle School to see what a dire situation that we face with middle school students in certain areas of our community. That school is in danger of being closed for repeated failure to meet state education standards.”

Further letters of support are included in the petition—one signed by former state Rep. Pat Bond, chairman of the Jacksonville Education Foundation, another by Daniel Gray, president of the Jacksonville World Class Education Organization, Amy Mattison of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Jay Chesshir of the Little Rock Air Force Base Community Council, state Reps. Jane English and Mark Perry, and John Paul Capps, who was still state senator when he wrote his letter Nov. 3.