Tuesday, April 21, 2015

TOP STORY >> Sherwood sees millage benefit

Leader staff writer

Sylvan Hills High School has grown from 750 students to almost 1,000 in two years and could see 1,700 by 2017-18, Alderman Beverly Williams told chamber members at their monthly luncheon on Thursday.

That is one reason the Sherwood Public Education Foundation, which Williams co-chairs, supports the 5.6-mill increase that will come before voters Tuesday, May 12.

The group’s other chairwoman, Linda Remele, said Sherwood would see $61 million in improvements to its schools if the tax passes.

A total of $221 million in district-wide facility improvements are planned.

The increase would equate to about $10 a month for the owner of a $100,000 home, Remele noted.

Early voting is 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 5 through Friday, May 8 at the Jack Evans Seniors Citizens Center, 2301 Thornhill Drive.

Remele and Williams are former Pulaski County Special School District administrators. The foundation they head, formed by a city council-approved resolution in 2013, is working toward detachment from the Pulaski County Special School District.

Williams emphasized at the lunch that the millage would pay for a $51 million expansion and update of SHHS. Included in those plans is a multipurpose building that could be used in partnership with the district as a community-event venue.

Williams said the tentative time frame, if the measure is approved, would be one year to plan, two years to build and students would use new facilities in 2017-18, although projects planned for elementary schools could take less than a year.

PCSSD Jerry Superintendent Guess, who also attended the luncheon and spoke there, added that elementary school projects range from adding indoor physical education space to more classrooms.

No improvements are planned for buildings in the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, even though it will operate under the PCSSD umbrella until 2016-17. Those patrons will not vote on the millage nor pay the increased rate if it passes.

“We actually need this space,” Williams continued, pointing at a board depicting the planned expansion of SHHS. She also said some work was planned for the four-year-old Sylvan Hills Middle School.

Williams explained that SHMS parking must be reworked for safety reasons. Also, a restroom between the practice field down the hill where physical education classes are held and the main building wasn’t thought of then.

Williams added that SHHS needs the multipurpose building because its doesn’t have indoor space where all of its students can gather. It doesn’t even have an indoor space big enough to seat the large ninth-grade class for orientation.

Not only does Sherwood’s growth warrant the millage increase, but Williams said the city won’t get its own district without it because PCSSD must be declared unitary – desegregated — and released from federal court oversight before any detachment effort besides Jacksonville’s goes through. The desegregation settlement signed last year states that.

Facilities is one area in which PCSSD has not gained unitary status and the millage will help it do so, Williams explained.

Remele said, “We want our children to have world-class facilities right now. They shouldn’t have to wait until we form our own school district when the district becomes unitary.”

She also shed light on why PCSSD needs more funding. Remele said, “The last time a millage was passed in the Pulaski County Special School District was 1992. Now, you can sit there and think about: could you run a household or a business on the same amount of money you were making in 1992?

“Another reason we’re supporting this millage is the district has gone about it the right way,” she continued. “They’ve gone to each one of the buildings all over the district, but certainly in the Sherwood area, and met with the staff and said, ‘What are your concerns? What are your needs for the facilities?’

“So they’ve listened to our teachers and administrators in saying what they need before they planned these projects.”

The foundation also supports the increase because all the projects will be worked on at the same time, Remele said. “Everything is phase one.”

Guess and both women agreed passing the millage must be a district-wide movement. The superintendent told chamber members, “I am very optimistic about this not only because of the enthusiasm here but because there is a similar enthusiasm across the district to improve the public education of kids in the district.”

He added that plans are to build two new high schools in the Mills and Robinson zones and convert the current high schools into middle schools while still keeping millage in PCSSD lower than that of nearby districts.

This year’s SHHS valedictorian, J.T. Espejo, was a surprise speaker who offered a student’s view of the issue.

He said, “It’s crazy walking through the hallways with crowded space, and, as you can imagine, when you’re walking through halls with another 1,000 students and it’s hot outside, it’s rough.”

Espejo called attending class in a portable building “not fun” because the air conditioning is “not the best.”

He explained, “It takes your mind off the education. We’re wanting to keep students’ minds on the education, not where they are.

“It’d be incredibly helpful for us to be able to expand our school so that we can keep our students learning in a rich environment and so that students can feel happy about where they are.”

Espejo added that the expansion would have another benefit. “It’s so exciting for us as students to see something we can take pride in.”

About the detachment effort, Williams — in her introduction — said foundation members haven’t been lazy.

She also joked about Guess’ support for the initiative. “We’re taking part of his heart and everything but, actually, he loves us so he’s going to let us have that part of his left ventricle.”

A new feasibility study will have to be completed now that Jacksonville has split off from PCSSD, Williams said.

The foundation campaigned to get a law passed that lowered the enrollment threshold of both a new district and the existing district it wishes to detach from.

For Sherwood to split before the law was passed, PCSSD would have been required to have an enrollment of 15,000. It had 17,000 before Jacksonville detached, but the new JNP district took between 4,000 and 4,500 students.

That means PCSSD would have had less than the 15,000 minimum and Sherwood would not have been able to detach.

The new law also lowers the number of students a new district must have from 4,000 to 2,500 and the square footage for the existing district from 700 to 450 square miles. The existing district must have at least 2,500 students after the detachment, too.

“Now there’s no Arkansas law in our way,” Williams summarized.

She also repeated that the federal court is not opposed to the idea. When it was presented last year to Judge Price D. Marshall, who is presiding over the desegregation case, Williams said he stated, “Sherwood, I am not telling you no. I am telling you not now.”

She added that the city is the 14th largest in Arkansas and would have the 16th largest school district of 235 in the state when it detaches from PCSSD.