My discovery of the behind-the-scenes approval of a $90 million bond sale by the Little Rock School District for a Southwest Little Rock high school and other construction was followed by the distribution at 10:31 p.m. last night of a school district news release about the plan.
State Education Commissioner Johnny Key, acting as the Little Rock School Board under state control, approved the sale of bonds (not backed by a tax pledge) in a “school board” meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, a meeting not announced to the public. Word leaked out, I got tipped and Key confirmed the action. I’d asked Superintendent Michael Poore for more details. His response apparently was a news release sent to me and others late Friday night by the district’s Pam Smith. She says the release was in the mill before my inquiry, but delayed by a variety of factors.
Sen. Joyce Elliott joined Dr. Anika Whitfield in being unhappy to learn about the clandestine borrowing decision, which they view as contrary to the May 9 district vote against refinancing existing bonds and extended 12.4 mills in construction debt for 14 years.
— Joyce Elliott (@xjelliott) June 24, 2017
I can’t complain about use of second-lien bonds. I’d mentioned (as had fired superintendent Baker Kurrus) second-lien bonds and more budget tightening as a method to meet the most pressing construction needs short of $600 million or more in additional tax authorization voters had been asked to approve. Uncertainties about future size and shape of the district, particularly with the Key-backed ravages of ever increasing charter schools, argued against a tax vote to improve facilities that might someday be run by private charter school organizations. It was opposition to charter expansion that prompted Key to fire Kurrus after a successful year as leader of the district.
After I learned of the plan, I sought a comment from several, including state Board of Education member Jay Barth, referenced by Key in a note to me about the plan. Said Barth:
Yes, it’s not perfect but kids and staff need better facilities sooner rather than later.
For the record, here’s what the School District distributed last night (it doesn’t address how the district will adapt to tapping excess construction millage revenue for actual construction, instead of using the money for operations as it is currently):
The Little Rock School District plans to move forward on the construction of a new high school located in southwest Little Rock, off Mabelvale Pike Road and Richsmith Lane. The District will utilize second lien bond financing that will generate $90 million in construction funds. The District plans to use $55-60 million of these funds to assist in the construction of the new high school. The remaining funds will be designated for capital improvements, including roofs, HVAC upgrades, and security enhancements.
These projects will not only allow the District to begin fulfilling the promise to build a new high school but will also address some of the high-priority capital needs identified in the 2014 Fanney-Howey study. Favorable conditions surrounding interest rates provide the District a window to begin the work now.
LRSD will receive its final payment of $37 million in desegregation funds, restricted to use for facilities, in the 2017-18 school year. The proposed financial plan allows the District to further demonstrate to the state’s Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation its commitment and responsibility to ensure that students are provided an “adequate and equitable educational opportunity.”
The new high school in southwest Little Rock is slated to open in the fall of 2020 and designed to serve 2,250 students. Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, Nabholz Construction, and district staff, along with students and parents from the J.A. Fair and McClellan communities have assisted with designing the project.
“The new high school will be a state-of-the-art facility for the students of J.A. Fair and McClellan,” said Superintendent Mike Poore. “Although this does not address all the needs identified in previous studies that total over $300 million, it moves us forward in addressing several key issues that impact the learning environments of our campuses,” he added.
The Little Rock School District is constantly seeking to improve and impact the students it serves while also attracting new students. “We live in a competitive world and we remain committed to providing academic programming and facilities that support a quality education for all students,” said Poore.