Friday, June 16, 2017

TOP STORY >> $168M in school construction starting

By GARRICK FELDMAN Leader executive editor

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School Board surprised Bobby Lester when it was announced at the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday morning that a new Jacksonville elementary school near Little Rock Air Force Base would be named for the former interim superintendent.

Workers unveiled a large depiction of the 80,000-square-foot structure to be built on 20 acres at General Samuels and Harris roads that will be named the Bobby G. Lester Elementary School.

The new $16.5 million elementary school should be ready for students by August 2018, with state partnership funding $7.5 million of the cost.

The new elementary school — part of a $102 million school building program — will replace nearby Tolleson Elementary School and Arnold Drive Elementary School on the air base. Both schools were built in the 1950s.

JNPSD board president Daniel Gray said, “After 30-plus years of tireless effort by countless members of this great community, we are finally breaking ground on the $100 million-plus in capital improvements for our Jacksonville scholars….Most of all, today is possible because of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski voters who voted to invest in our scholars and all of our economic futures by ensuring the passing of a historic millage.”

Gray asked Lester to come forward and said, “This man stepped up and is so integral in ensuring we would be on the right foot when he came out of retirement and sacrificed time with his family to be our very first superintendent. He knew where all the skeletons were buried and helped ensure we’d get a fair shake upon the division of assets from PCSSD. JNP is truly thankful and blessed that we have such a pillar in the Arkansas education community able to be of service.

“Ladies and gentlemen, JNP is proud to break ground today on the new Bobby G. Lester Elementary School,” Gray said. (See editorial, p. 8)

Lester, who headed the fledgling Jacksonville school district for a year and was the longtime superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District, said he would have brought his wife with him for the groundbreaking had he known the new school would be named for him.

In fact, Lester’s wife, Laura Beth, was in on the secret and arrived before the ceremony.

An emotional Lester thanked the school board and the district’s patrons, who had passed a millage increase last year to fund ambitious building projects, including a new high school along with the elementary school and 9,000-foot annexes at Murrell Taylor and Bayou Meto Elementary Schools costing $1 million each.

Jacksonville and Sherwood are both building new high schools costing more than $65 million each.

The state’s share of the new $66 million flagship Jacksonville High School along Main Street, slated to open in August 2019, is $20.2 million. Bids will be let on July 17.

The district’s entire construction budget is about $102 million, according to Superintendent Tony Wood.

That includes about $45 million raised by increasing the debt-service millage by 7.6 mills, the $28.1 million in state partnership matching funds, $10.2 million in the state’s final desegregation settlement, a $10.5 million second lien bond, a $4.5 million transfer of assets from PCSSD when the two districts split, $3 million from proceeds of a previous bond sale and $10 million in future bonds to upgrade Jacksonville Middle School.

The $28,187,684 million in state school facilities partnership matching money approved for Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District is the largest in the state this year, according to Wood.

Those figures don’t in-clude about $4 million in architect fees.

Designed by WER Archi-tects, with Baldwin and Shell the construction manager, the elementary school will serve 648 students and will have 36 classrooms, dedicated music and art instruction spaces, a parent center and a hardened storm shelter.

It will include a 5,000 square f00t dining area with a permanent, raised stage and appropriate support spaces.

Wood called construction of the new school a milestone for Jacksonville, saying that the new facility is the first public school to be built in Jacksonville in four decades.

“This ceremony represents the success of joint efforts to improve conditions for students enrolled in our schools,” he said at the groundbreaking.

“We put it all together. Now we’ve got to get it built and paid for,” Wood said afterward.

Bryan Duffie, who will succeed Wood next month, said after the ceremony, “It’s an exciting time for the community. We hope this is the first of many progressive improvements for the district.”

Duffie, who is currently assistant superintendent for support services, has been a principal and superintendent at Westside Consolidated School District near Jones-boro. He said, “The unconditional support (from Jacksonville-area residents) has been unprecedented in my career.”

Meanwhile, Sherwood is looking to build a new $65 million Sylvan Hills High School campus after voters in the Pulaski County Special School District on Tuesday approved an extension of the existing 40.7-mill property tax to pay for the new school, which could be ready for occupancy in fall 2019.

By a margin of 2,628 to 1,337, voters decided that the existing school, built for 880 students, is not up to the task of housing, feeding and educating the projected enrollment of 1,450.

Currently, the ninth graders are diverted to a “freshman campus” at the old Northwood Middle School and will go to the new high school campus.

The 17-year tax extension will generate about $66.5 million. About $60 million of that will be used to build new classrooms and science labs, a larger cafeteria and a large auditorium at Sylvan Hills and remodel much of the rest of the campus, he said.

Sherwood’s population has gained about 41 percent between 2000 and 2014.

WER architects have done preliminary drawings and should complete the plans later this year, according to Deborah Roush, PCSSD director of communications.

Dirt work for the construction, adjacent to and including the existing high school, could begin this fall, she said.

Leader senior staff writer John Hofheimer contributed to this report.