Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TOP STORY >> PCSSD finances up, but still needs help

Leader staff writer

In 2011 when the state took over the Pulaski County Special School District it was spending $6.5 million more than it was bringing in and had to dip into reserves bringing that number down to $3.5 million.

But five years later, even with the breaking away of the Jacksonville district, PCSSD spent $14.7 million less than its revenues and has built its reserves up to $26.3 million.

“It was a difficult five years. At times we were sweating. We had to make a lot of hard choices along the way,” Superintendent Jerry Guess told the new board at a workshop last week.

Guess told the board that PCSSD had both an advantage and a disadvantage when it came to the millage it gets from its residents.

“The good news is that our mills are worth quite a bit,” Dr. Guess explained. “each mill in our district is worth about $2.4 million because of level of property assessment. I know a district where a mill is only worth $150,000. So that’s the good news, and as assessed values rise so do the values of our mills.”

The only dip the county has seen was between 2014 and 2015 when assessed values went from $2.74 million down to $2.49 million as it lost the assessed value of the Jacksonville residents. But the district’s assessments were expected to rebound to $2.64 million for 2016. The exact figures are not available yet.

On top of that, Pulaski County will be reassessing property values this year and the consensus is that values will go up at least 6 percent.

“But, he went on, “because we are considered a wealthy district we get no help from the state when it comes to construction projects. It all has to come out of our pockets,” Guess said.

In contrast, Cabot gets about 45 percent of its construction projects covered by the state. The Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District expects about the same amount.

Even though PCSSD’s finances are improving and the state has relinquished control, facility needs are outstripping what is coming in.

“There’s three ways to increase our money to cover our facility needs: Increase assessments, millage increase, reduction in expenses or a combination of all three,” said Derek Scott, PCSSD’s director of operations.

The biggest upcoming change for the district, said Guess, was that the district would be “going back to operating like every other district in the state with the loss of the extra desegregation money it had been receiving for more than a decade.”

The board talked about the possibility of a millage increase. Each extra mill would add $20 to a resident’s property bill. Scott and Guess recommended that the board members go back and see what the patrons are willing to do.

“We don’t want to go out there and lose. You have to sell it to all seven communities of our district,” Scott said.

The district is already revamping Mills High School at a cost of about $40 million and is looking at a $65 million expansion, remodeling, facelift for Sylvan Hills School.

To fix the overcrowded Sylvan Hills School, which is at about 200 percent capacity, and possibly take care of other needs a number of options were presented to the board, which they will discuss at Thursday’s board meeting.

“We are already about three months behind if we want a new Sylvan Hills High School by the start of the 2019 school year instead of using an additional 19 portable,” Scott said.

The first option calls for a second lien bond issue based on the district’s surplus. That would bring in $36.6 million and require no vote of the district’s patrons. “It would be a start,” Scott said, “But wouldn’t do much.”

The next option would be to extend and refinance the current bond issue by 13 years. No extra taxes, just an extension, Scott explained. It would require a successful vote and would raise $65 million, enough to “fix” Sylvan Hills High School.

Another choice would be a combination of the extension and a millage increase of one, two or three mills ($20, $40 or $60 added to a resident’s property tax bill). Any of these would require a successful vote.

A one-mill increase would raise $112.2 million, a two-mill hike would bring in $161.4 million and a three-mill increase would give the district $210.5 million.

“It’s a lot to think about,” said Guess.