Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus’ announcement this afternoon that the district is moving forward with two new facilities projects — a new high school in Southwest Little Rock and a new middle school in West Little Rock — is among the most significant development in the LRSD since the district was taken over by the state in January.
As we reported earlier today, Kurrus has agreed to a $11.5 million conditional contract to acquire the former “Leisure Arts” building for a potential West Little Rock middle school; the property, which sits just off Cantrell Road near its intersection with Chenal Parkway, will be studied in the next six months to determine whether it’s feasible to retrofit as a school. The seller is Baptist Health. He is also initiating “a community engagement process” to “plan, design and construct a new high school in southwest Little Rock,” presumably on land the LRSD acquired for that purpose off of Mabelvale Pike Road. That school would replace the existing McClellan High School.
There’s much to be said about all of this in the months ahead in terms of equity, money, segregation, pragmatism, politics, etc., but for now I’ll focus on the nuts and bolts of what we know.
The superintendent said it is necessary for the district to “compete” in West Little Rock and attract more students if it is to “prevail” — a nod to the fact that charter school operators are eagerly expanding in that part of town. But he also cautioned people to avoid thinking with certainty “that means we’re going to build a new school there.” Nothing concrete is happening just yet. The conditional contract gives LRSD 180 days to explore its options regarding the property, including zoning and land use issues, traffic concerns and converting buildings that were never intended to serve as a school (something that likely won’t be cheap). The Leisure Arts facility includes a 75,000 square foot office building and a 175,000 square foot warehouse on about 23 acres of land, Kurrus said. LRSD already owns a section of land next to the property.
If the Leisure Arts building seems to be a good deal for the district, he said, LRSD could begin using it “ASAP,” meaning there’s a chance it could be open by the 2016-17 school year. “If we could start a 6th grade out there we wouldn’t hesitate,” Kurrus said, “[but] we’ve just done the first step.” He said the property (if found suitable) would be used as a middle school “initially,” but didn’t rule out the possibility of a high school sometime later.
He also insisted that “if that deal falls apart in West Little Rock, I’m not going to slow down in Southwest. The lead times are too long.”
The two facilities projects will “move along parallel tracks,” he said. He framed his announcement today in part by the last vote taken by the elected Little Rock School Board before it was dissolved by the state in January. Like Kurrus, that board wanted to balance the creation of a new middle school in predominately affluent West Little Rock with a major new investment in Southwest Little Rock, which is poorer and predominately Latino and black.
But the elected board’s January motion was made with an important caveat that Kurrus is not including: It explicitly tied the pace of construction in the West to construction in Southwest. Former LRSD Board Member Joy Springer said at the time that the phrasing was necessary to assure voters in the less-affluent parts of the city that they wouldn’t be neglected. “Promises were not kept to them the last time they voted for a millage campaign,” she said at the time. The motion in January:
“[C]onstruction of a southwest high school shall be the district’s first priority. Upon a successful millage, the district shall simultaneously authorize construction of a southwest Little Rock high school and a west Little Rock middle school. … If for some reason the southwest Little Rock’s school construction is delayed, the west Little Rock school construction shall also be delayed pending resolution of the reasons for delay.”
I asked Kurrus today why he wasn’t explicitly tying the two projects together as Springer’s motion did in January. “I’m acting in the spirit of those resolutions,” he said, but not in accordance with the exact language. (He’s certainly not bound to, since the old board has been dismissed.) “The timing of these two projects is independent. We initiate them at the same time … [but] if you read that [motion] to mean we would never move forward on WLR school before we ever broke ground on a SWLR high school, that would mean a delay of two, two and a half years.”
He also pointed out that he wasn’t conditioning the facilities on a millage increase, as did the elected board’s plan — a plan that always seemed a very long shot at passing if it had gone before Little Rock voters.
So where is Kurrus getting the money? He said the district could expect to see “a little bit of assistance” from the state under a new funding formula for state facilities aid, “but it’s very small. I think it’s 6 percent of the total cost … By and large we’re going to have to do this from available resources.” Because so much of what Kurrus’ work atop the district has involved its finances, it’s worth getting into some details on this issue.
Kurrus said the district has done a poor job in the past of keeping its budget for capital expenditures — that is, one for investing in buildings and other long-term assets — distinct from its budget for everyday operations. The millage levied by the district on property owners specifies that 12 mills (out a total of 46.4) are dedicated to capital projects, he said. “We spend about 4 of those  mils presently for capital improvements, the rest for operations.”
“So what we’re doing systematically now is going through district and wringing out costs wherever we can — as far away from the classroom as we can get them — to recapture that debt service millage and use it for its designed purpose, which is to service debt [for building construction]. That’s a hard process, but we’re making progress. Our teachers are being very patient with us, and our whole staff has been very patient with us. I’ve been candid: We’re going to have some lean years, because we’ve got to support our facilities with the money that was supposed to be used to support our facilities.”
In the short term, he said, cuts he’s engineered in the district’s budget this current year (2015-16) have resulted in a surplus of about $8.5 million, which is being set aside in a capital fund. Another $8.5 million and then some should be added to the fund next school year (2016-17) — the “and then some” occurring because the superintendent will make more cuts in the coming year. “By then, I hope to have a pretty substantial nest egg that we can use for facilities and capital improvements,” he said.
The cuts themselves are being made in preparation for a coming loss of $37 million annually to the district’s budget when the state’s desegregation settlement payments to LRSD come to a halt in 2017-18. Right now, LRSD is still fairly flush, since the deseg tap is still flowing. By making the cuts sooner rather than later and setting aside the resulting savings for capital improvements, Kurrus hopes to prepare the district for leaner times, wean its operations budget away from use of capital millage and accumulate sufficient reserves to invest in new facilities in the coming years. Also, the final $37 million in the final year of deseg payments, in 2017-18, can only be used for capital improvements, as specified by the terms of the settlement.
“So we’ll have a running start with a fair amount of money,” he said. “Keep in mind, we won’t start spending money in earnest on a new high school, no matter where we build it, any sooner than three years [from now].”
It sounds like a good plan. Now then — considering the district was taken over by the state for academic reasons rather than fiscal ones, what’s the plan for educating kids?