Friday, February 25, 2011

TOP STORY >> School funds approved for Jacksonville

Leader staff writer

In a quickly called meeting it took the four attending Pulaski County Special School District board members less than five minutes to say yes to the district’s efforts to obtain up to $15 million in construction funds.

The district wants the money to help fund the construction of three new schools, all in the Jacksonville area, and the renovation of four other district schools.

With heavy rains and tornado warnings being issued, Bill Vasquez, Tim Clark, Gwen Williams and Mildred Tatum were still able to attend the 5 p.m. Thursday meeting and actually started about four minutes earlier than scheduled because of the impending weather.

The board gave the go-ahead to the district to apply for a share of $33 million in federal stimulus funds left over from 2010. More than 20 school districts from across the state have applied for the pool of money known as Qualified School Construction Bonds.

The money will be awarded at or near zero percent.

Derek Scott, PCSSD executive director of operations, told the board that if the district received the entire $15 million, it would save $700,000 annually in the cost of construction bonds.

“Getting just $2 million, would save the district $100,000 a year,” he said.

Scott said the special meeting was called because the bond application had to be submitted to the state Monday.

Clark said with so many districts applying, the district would be “lucky to get a couple million.”

Carey Smith, with Stephens, Inc., who is helping the district obtain the money, admitted that one of the other districts applying had asked for the entire $33 million, but the state would use a formula to make sure all districts received a share. “But to say the district would get $2 million is looking on the high side,” he said.

Smith also said that the federal program is no longer being funded and after this pool of money was gone, there would be no more.

The district is looking at the funds to build a new elementary school to replace both Arnold Drive (on Little Rock Air Force Base) and Tolleson Elementary, just outside the base; to replace Jacksonville Middle School and also build a new school there to replace Jacksonville and Dupree elementary schools.

According to a letter from Dr. Charles Hopson, PCSSD superintendent, to the state education department’s facilities division, Arnold Drive was built in 1968 and Tolleson was constructed in 1957.

“The United States Air Force has indicated that they will provide a site for the new elementary school on base property that lies just outside the fenced perimeter on the base,” Hopson said in the letter.

The planned school will serve up to 750 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Arnold Drive and Tolleson currently have a combined student population of about 600.

Jacksonville Middle School was built in 1952 and was originally designed as a high school for sophomores, juniors and seniors. The facility was converted to a junior high campus for grades seventh through ninth in 1968 when Jacksonville High School was built. In 2000 it became a middle school and to this day houses sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

In his letter, Hopson said the facility “does not promote the middle-school concept of teaming. Additionally, all the classroom doors open to the outside which presents possible safety issues. This layout also presents health issues as students are exposed to inclement weather when changing classes during the day.”

The third new school will replace both Jacksonville Elementary and Warren Dupree Elementary. It will be built on land already owned by the district and will house up to 750 students. Hopson said this combined school had the backing of Jacksonville parents and residents. The current combined student population of Jacksonville and Dupree elementary schools would max out the new school.

The district also plans major remodeling and additions to Robinson Middle School, College Station Elementary, Scott Elementary and Harris Elementary.

Hopson told the education department that the district would have to obtain additional funding to finance the projects and would have to reduce the district’s operating budget to generate sufficient funds to sell bonds to cover the construction costs. Plans call for cutting $8 million from the district’s budget to issue $104 million in construction bonds.