Friday, October 03, 2014

EDITORIAL >> How state will build schools

The new Jacksonville school district will need tens of millions of dollars from the state’s Academic Facilities partnership program to build new schools, and, despite a $20 million infusion by the governor, the fund for that program is $65 million short for the next two years.

In January, the next General Assembly will have to find significant funds for that program.

Jacksonville, as well as much of north Pulaski County that will be included in the new district, hasn’t had a new school in decades. But there is not yet a formal district and thus no master facilities plan approved by the state.

It could be March 2016 before the district can submit a facilities master plan and July 2017 before it can get some of that matching money — and that’s assuming there’s any money in that fund.

The Arkansas Supreme Court’s 2007 Lake View decision required the state to ensure that all districts had adequate schools and resulted in the creation of the Division of Academic Facilities and Transportation’s facilities partnership program. Lawmakers funded that program with about $456 million at the time.

In that program, the state established a wealth index. It pays a percentage of new construction costs for approved academic facilities — more for poor districts, less for rich districts.

Feasibility studies indicate that a Jacksonville school district would have a wealth index somewhere in the 50 percent range — like Pine Bluff, while the Pulaski County Special School District has a wealth index of about 99 percent.

That means that the state’s share of the cost of a plan to build a new $80 million high school in the new district would be about $40 million, while its share of the same school, if we were still part of PCSSD, would be less than $1 million.

The Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation spends about 3,000 words explaining how the wealth index is calculated and what qualifies for the public school facilities partnership.

The determination, in simple terms, is made by multiplying the amount of revenue 1 mill of school property tax in a district raises, divided by the number of students enrolled in the district, according the Charles Stein, director of the division.

The division has rules to establish a process that “shall provide state financial participation based upon a school district’s academic facilities wealth index in the form of cash payments to a school district for eligible new construction projects.”

That’s one reason that PCSSD administrators and U.S. District Judge Price Marshall supported the Jacksonville detachment. Adequacy of facilities is one of the areas PCSSD is not unitary in as it attempts to satisfy and end the court supervised desegregation agreement. PCSSD can become unitary in facilities faster and cheaper with Jacksonville area schools in a separate district.

As figured by PCSSD Chief Operating Officer Derek Scott, Jacksonville will need an estimated $93 million in new construction and remodeling and fixing. It’s incumbent upon the new General Assembly, which will be in session in January, to find money to continue the academic facilities partnership program created to help poorer districts build new and adequate facilities across the state.

Almost all Jacksonville-area schools are about 50 years old, while PCSSD taxpayer money went for new schools in Maumelle and Sherwood. Then-school board members Tim Clark of Maumelle and Charlie Wood of Sherwood hoodwinked the rest of the PCSSD board a few years ago into refinancing existing debt and building expensive new schools in their zones, while leaving the rest of the district with nothing but empty promises. No new schools have been built since then.

So, now that it’s Jacksonville’s turn, the partnership money is all earmarked or gone, and the state will have to find more.

While coming up with more money to build more schools throughout the state may be unpopular, the Supreme Court seemed pretty clear in ruling that the state’s first priority will be to fund adequate schools. If lawmakers shirk their duty in that regard, they can be pretty sure that the state will be taken back to court — either to reopen Lake View, or in a whole new proceeding, which will be long and expensive.

The state Supreme Court ruled that school funding must come first when considering a budget.

“My understanding on the Lake View ruling — adequate funding is about the only constitutional requirement,” PCSSD Chief Financial Officer Bill Goff said this week. “I assume the legislature will do what it is constitutionally required to do.”

Among the four essential components for compliance is the requirement that the state fund education first and show that constitutional compliance is an ongoing task requiring constant study, review and adjustment.