Wednesday, April 29, 2015

TOP STORY >> PCSSD wants to keep schools with millage hike

Leader staff writer

Residents of the College Station and McAlmont communities can keep their historically significant black elementary schools, having convinced Pulaski County Special School District Superintendent Jerry Guess to improve rather than close them.

That’s if state Education Commissioner Johnny Key signs off on the proposal and voters approve a 5.6-mill property tax increase.

The PCSSD Citizens Advisory Board unanimously made those changes and another Monday, sending them on to Key.

In lieu of a PCSSD school board, which the state dissolved when it took over the district in 2011 for reasons of fiscal distress, the education commissioner serves as a one-man board.

Residents of the Scott community would get a reprieve for their school, slated for closure at the end of this school year, until a new elementary is built to replace it.

The new school had been envisioned for 650 or 700 students, according to Guess, and would have accommodated Harris and College Station students as well as those from Scott. Instead, the new elementary school would serve about 400 students.

“We modified the plan,” Guess said. “We’re trying to do what will best serve the patrons.”

“At Harris, we’d go in there and turn the ‘B’ Building into a pre-K center, increase parking, add new driveways and separate the parent drop off from the bus drop off,” said Brad Montgomery, director of maintenance. A new playground and a walking track would also be installed, he said.

A new kitchen and cafeteria would double as a storm shelter, a new administration area would be constructed, and all connectors would be enclosed to keep students out of the weather.

College Station sits below grade, and the roofs are different heights and materials.

A new section, one-and-one-half stories high, would connect the existing buildings to add a new entry, principal’s office and student services. “It will have a real nice look from the street,” Montgomery said.

“We’ll move and enlarge the media center, add a bus drop off, a separate car drop off and another playground,” he said. Parking would be added, too.

“We’ll enclose all outdoor corridors, except the fine arts building,” Montgomery noted.

The whole point is to give people what they want, Guess said.

“The parents at Scott are excited to stay until the new building is constructed.”

The board voted unanimously to recommend putting $2.5 million to $3 million into upgrades and additions at Harris and College Station elementaries. The new school would cost an estimated $12 million.

The new elementary to replace Scott and serve some unincorporated county residents would be located off state Hwy. 440 near the Fourche Dam exit, Guess said.

Previously, all three schools had been slated for closure and rolled into the new, planned elementary.

This is part of the ambitious district-wide facilities improvement plan the district would execute with the passage on May 12 of a 5.6-mill property-tax increase.

The increase would still leave PCSSD with a lower tax rate than either the North Little Rock or Little Rock school districts.

All these improvements are contingent upon voter approval of the increase.

That increase is expected to raise about $221 million and essentially build three new high schools and improve virtually every school remaining in the district after 10 schools split off with the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District.

PCSSD is planning a large addition to Sylvan Hills High School if voters approve a millage increase, which would make it “basically a new school,” said PCSSD Director of Operations Derek Scott.

That school doesn’t have a space large enough for a student assembly. Improvements would include new classroom space, a new gymnasium and the space currently behind the school becoming the approach to, essentially, a whole new high school. The existing auditorium would be repurposed into a seminar room.

Two years ago, the school had about 770 students. After the Jacksonville-North Pulaski district starts classes, Sylvan Hills will grow to about 1,420 students.

Sylvan Hills Middle School, although recently built, still needs restrooms at the practice and play fields.

Sherwood Elementary would get a gym, a cafeteria and new parking.

Sylvan Hills Elementary is slated for additional classrooms, air conditioning in the gym and paved parking.

Cato Elementary, with open-space classrooms, could be moved about year three into the building that currently houses Northwood Middle School, Scott said.

In addition to work at Harris and College Station and the new Fourche Dam Pike-area elementary, here’s what patrons would get for their new tax dollars:

For Mills High School and its feeder schools, a new high school would be built for about $52 million, according to Scott, with the current high school remodeled and converted to a middle school.

Fuller, the existing middle school, would then be demolished.

The district would build the proposed new elementary school to replace Harris, Scott and College Station elementaries — roughly equidistant from each. That school is not currently on the state facilities master plan, but the state only matches about one-half of 1 percent of approved construction for PCSSD, Scott said. The district could afford the additional new school, assuming the millage increase is approved.

Landmark and Daisy Bates elementary schools would be gussied up and would each get a gymnasium/multipurpose room.

“We’re trying to ensure we can get rid of open-space classes, like those at Landmark, where possible,” Scott said.

The district would also build a new Robinson High School, converting the current high school into a middle school and demolishing the current middle school.

Robinson Elementary School, an open-space facility, would be demolished and replaced.

Chenal Elementary needs increased parking, and both Baker and Lawson elementaries need gymnasiums and facility improvements.

Maumelle High School, the most recently built in the district, still needs a track, visitors’ bleachers, restrooms, lights on the softball and baseball fields and the conversion of practice fields into game fields, according to Scott.

Maumelle Middle School, also recent construction, needs restrooms at the athletic fields and air conditioning in the gym.

Crystal Hill and Oak Grove elementary schools each need a gym and general improvements.

Pine Forest, which has a gym, still needs general facility improvements.

In the event that the millage increase vote fails, the district’s facilities plan would be reduced to building a new high school on Dixon Road to replace Mills High School and to perform an extreme makeover on Mills, converting it to a middle school for the students who otherwise would attend Fuller.

Early voting begins Tuesday, only at the Jack Evans Senior Center in Sherwood, the Jess Odom Community Center in Maumelle, the Roosevelt Thompson Library off Chenal Parkway and the County Regional Building at Markham and Broadway in Little Rock, according to Brian Poe, Pulaski County director of elections.

Residents of the Jacksonville-North Pulaski District aren’t eligible to vote in this election, nor are they subject to the increase if it is approved.