Members of the Vilonia community gathered together for the first public meeting on Thursday to hear discussion and ask questions regarding the millage increase proposal for a new auditorium, career technical building and high school renovations as part of the district facilities plan.

The purpose of the meeting, Superintendent David Stephens said, was to walk through the possible plan with the public. He said their role as educational professionals is to think about what is going to best serve the needs of the students, take that to the public and say this is what we need, here’s the plan and the tax burden it’s going to create and ask for support.

According to the superintendent, the total cost of the project is estimated at a little more than $33 million, which includes furnishings, 8 percent contingency and escalation and architectural fees.

The district has been approved for more than $4.2 million in state aid, leaving the final numbers the district is responsible for at nearly $29 million.

A 5.7 millage is currently being requested.

The plan currently, Stephens said, is to carry the project out in three phases: the first phase starting with the auditorium in fall 2017, the second with the career and technical center no later than fall 2021 and the final phase, renovations, starting in 2026.

The three phases, he said, is to lessen the burden on taxpayers. If they were to carry out the construction all at once, the minimum of a 9-mill increase would be needed.

"What I would love to have is one continuous construction," Stephens said.

The plan, he said, is based on a conservative, 2 percent assessment growth factor — through the past five years they’ve grown at more than a 5 percent rate — but best-case scenario, the funding would be there earlier to complete the project.

Two land purchases were approved during the Vilonia Board of Education meeting in June for the growth plan.

The first purchase was for 18.8 acres east of the high school for $470,000 and the second for 26 acres south of the middle school for $10,000 per acre.

Some community members criticized the land purchase due to the millage not passing yet and asked Stephens whether the district had any "plan b" ready in case the millage didn’t pass.

‘The reality of it is that we are landlocked right now," he said. "I’m optimistic this millage is going to go through, but if it doesn’t we still need land for growth and I think it’s a great investment for years to come."

Stephens said he is confident that any future superintendent would be thankful for the purchase down the road.

In several parts of the room, the possible plan as is was displayed for community members to view. Stephens also held the rendering up for discussion.

He told the Log Cabin Democrat that teachers in the programs that would be mostly benefited and other staff were consulted and asked what would best serve their programs and build for the future of the district and "they were a part of the process."

The specific elements, he said, are designs brought on by years of discussion on what facilities are needed in the district. One aspect that seemed to be brought up was why Vilonia didn’t have an auditorium.

Discussions from there turned into thoughts about long-range goals and what would make the district and its students more successful, i.e. the career center.

Stephens said the reality is that not every student is going to go to college and they want to have programs that meet the needs of every one of their kids.

"We just want to have programs that meet the needs of both," he said. "We’re also understanding the importance of skills trade."

In addition, the reality for building improvements and more space at the high school was also a desperate need, he said.

"We need to prepare for growth," Stephens said.

Overall, he said, if the millage proposal doesn’t pass in September, they’ll go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.

"I feel like tonight served the purpose I intended it to," Stephens said. "Just an opportunity for people to ask questions and for us to just tell them the facts. It was never our intent to say ‘please vote for us’ or ‘tell us how we can convince you.’"

He said he wanted the public to be educated regarding the plan to be able to make an informed decision when voting.

"I thought tonight was very successful in that it provided a venue to get a conversation going," Stephens said.

The superintendent said he hopes to have two or three more public meetings before the election in September.