VILONIA — The Vilonia School Board of Education may be at a crossroads regarding asking for a millage increase or losing $9 million in state funding toward building a school.
Dr. Charles Stein, director of the Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, as well as Desi Berry, project manager for the APSAFT, were special guests at a public meeting held Monday night. Dr. Frank Mitchell, superintendent of the Vilonia School District, said he invited them to "just tell the truth" regarding what could happen if a millage is not on the September ballot and what happens if it fails.
"You have been lucky with leadership that has taken a part to provide you with a lot of money," Stein told the audience, later adding, "your school district needs more space."
Funding to ease the problem, he said, has been approved for some time. The original timeline passed for accessing it, he said, in September. However, due to the city being hit by the tornado, a waiver was granted by the state department until Sept. 2012.
"You applied. Your project was picked. You have $9 million set aside to build a new high school," Stein said.
The ranking for approving the project, he said, is based on academic facilities wealth, condition as far as existing buildings and 1 10 year growth percentage.
Referring to the source of funding, there are timelines with the Master Plan/Partnership Program, he explained, adding the district’s proposal to build a new high school was one of 73 "space" statewide projects that were approved (with a rigid 2-year timeline). Under that program, the state matches $2 to the district’s $1, he also said. Under the original plan for the high school, it is anticipated to cost about $16.5 million leaving the school to explore other avenues, including a millage increase, to cover the district’s portion. The board had considered placing the request for a millage increase on the Sept. ballot but opted to refrain due to the tornado devastation in the city.
If the district fails to meet the guidelines set out by the waiver, however, the state funding will soon "rotate off," and the school must reapply. A limited amount, Stein said, it is not known if or when the district would qualify a second time, should they lose the eligibility.
Stein stressed multiple times that he doesn’t want "the facts" to sound threatening but instead informational. You told us you have needs, those needs need addressing.
"You have until fall 2012 to maintain the $9 million," he said. "It’s just what the law says."
Several minutes was spent on questions regarding what could happen if district fell under the "facilities distress law." One scenario was the superintendent and school board could be removed. There would be required training for the district staff. The district could also face consolidation.
It was said the state could loan the district money for the facilities. However, under that scenario, there would be no sports, band programs, etc. until the money is paid back.
While the original plan proposed to the state was to build a new high school, it was said, now that may not be the best way to deal with district overcrowding and it the original plan could be changed to be more feasible. The growth pattern, Mitchell said, has changed since the original plan was submitted.
That’s changed some of the ways we need to look at this, Mitchell added. With the principals input, he said, there are now three plans now on the table. Plan 1, is the building of the high school for grades 11-12, with the moving of the 9th grade to the current high school building with 10th grade and leave 8th grade on the current junior high campus. Fourth, fifth and sixth grades would remain at the middle school. Grades K-4 would remain at the elementary and primary campuses.
Plan 1A: Same as Plan 1 except for the location of the new high school and possibly placing 9th and 10th grades in the new building and with 11th and 12th grades remaining in the current high school building.
Plan 2: Leave 11th and 12th grades in the present high school building. Move 10th grade to the present junior high campus with ninth grade. Construct a facility for fourth, fifth and sixth grades on a new campus. Leave K-3 grades on Vilonia Elementary and Vilonia Primary campuses.
Mitchell said all plans have pros and cons. For instance, he said, the advantages to Plan 1 include the new high school facilities would have an auditorium. It will be less moving of grade levels. State aid would be included for the safe room and no land purchase would be necessary. Disadvantages, he said. The allowable state funding for an auditorium would permit construction of a facility that would seat just more than 600. If a program was held for 10, 11 and 12th grades, the facility would not hold the students in those grades. Overcrowding at the campuses, other than the high school and junior high, would not be addressed. The district would have to add portable buildings and or move 7th grade to the junior high campus and move 4th grade from both the Elementary and Primary to the Middle School.
Addressing Plan 2, Mitchell said, the plan was a product of a principals’ meeting and "this makes sense." Overcrowding would be relieved at every campus with the possible exception of the junior high, he said. The Elementary campus and Primary campus would have one less grade level which would help with traffic congestion. This plan would also extend the time necessary to ask for another millage increase, Mitchell said. Eighth grade would fit well with 7th grade on the Middle School campus, he added. The facilities there, he said, are good for these grade levels.
Among the disadvantages, land, Mitchell said, would need to be purchased. He also said he has located some land that he believes would be feasible for building. He also said there would be no auditorium available with the state funding. State funding would not be included for a safe room. The junior high campus could also potentially be overcrowded and transportation of students would have to be rearranged.
Discussion continued for more than an hour. Stein concluded by saying he needed to know the districts’ master plan by the first of the year. The discussion ended with the board left to make an upcoming decision regarding a plan and a decision concerning asking for a millage increase.
The remainder of the public meeting, which lasted about an hour, was devoted to individual campus goals and test scores. The district’s financial position has improved from last year as well as strides are being made regarding technology improvements. It was also said the district has no schools on the improvement list. All principals set out goals for improvement including increasing test scores, advancing the use of technology and parental involvement.