EDITOR’S NOTE: During the Nov. 8 General Election, voters who reside in the Highland School District voted by a 2/3 majority to overturn a 8.9 mill increase to build a new high school. On Dec. 1,a special meeting was called by the board and during that meeting a motion was made by Renee Clay-Circle and seconded by David Gibson to approve to submit an “Application for a Permit to Issue Bonds”, with related documents for $24,670,000 in Construction Bonds to the State Department of Education and to employ First Security Beardsley as Fiscal Agent for February of2023. The Motion carried unanimously. On Dec 14, a second special meeting was called and during that meeting, the board voted unanimously to put the vote on for a special election on February 14.Since, supporters and opposition have made their voices heard, including the formation of Citizens for High-land School District Accountability. The group has hosted public meetings and appealed to city council in Cherokee Village in opposition of the millage increase. Administrators at the District have answered public questions on their social media since the loss. In an effort to provide a balanced story including both points of view since the district has not hosted any additional public meetings since the loss, we are publishing a side by side pro/con article in an attempt to inform voters who may not have made a decision on which way they plan to vote. The questions are very similar, but obviously have to differ in some nature due to the intended responder. The answers are published as they were submitted with only typographical errors corrected. It is our hope that this balance of information will assist voters in making their decision, as early voting is set to begin Feb. 7, with the Special election being Feb. 14.
Kara McEntire- Highland School District Student Services Director, Testing Coordinator, Federal Programs Coordinator and Public Relations District Coordinator resides in Highland. Kara is also a Highland graduate who has been employed by the Highland School District for 21 years.
Jeremy Lewis- Highland Superintendent. Resides in Cherokee Village. Highland graduate.
1.Regardless of which side of the millage proposal you are on, what is the single most important reason for your support or opposition to the 8.9 mill increase?
Students. Our why is always our students. The school will allow for the advancement of already successful programs, band, agri, welding, drama, CNA program and others. Our kids are talented, bright, and deserve thebest. According to recent data the Highland School District performs better than 88 percent of districts in Arkansas. The Highland School District offers multiple avenues for students to excel, discover their interests, and provide opportunities that can lead to future success. Constructing a new high school would benefit High-land School District students now and for generations to come. At the forefront of benefits is increased student safety and a positive learning environment. Schools are the center of a community and Highland is no different. Benefits also extend beyond the learning environment to improve community morale, attract future businesses and strengthen student engagement. Our community takes pride in our students and their accomplishments, and the building of a new high school.
2. One of the things that has been discussed amongst taxpayers is the alleged lack of long-term planning for the proposed construction of the new high school by the district. When did the district first establish a plan for the school and how or when was it put out to the public and in what way?
The Highland School District has a Facility Master Plan. This plan is updated annually. A partnership application to build a new high school began in the fall of 2019, and the application was submitted to the Commission in March 2020. The high school project was approved but unfunded by the Commission in July 2021, and finally funded in April2022. After the approval of $6.3 million in project funding toward the new high school, we began collecting information, finalizing plans and preparing to share information publicly. We had the millage request added to the November 2022 General Election ballot and shared information with the community via social media, running ads in the local newspapers, hosting multiple public meetings, sharing details on local radio stations, sending a mailer to all Highland mailing routes, handing out flyers at local sporting events, speaking with local civic groups, having one-to-one conversations, and the list goes on. Despite tireless efforts, there was a lot of political noise that easily overshadowed our work to communicate thoroughly and well.
3. Considering that two thirds of voters overturned the millage issue in November, do you think it is fiscally responsible for the district to place the millage on the ballot again in February, at a time when winter weather is most likely to impact travel to voting centers, at a cost of nearly $10,000 to taxpayers?
The projected cost, according to the clerk’s office, is between seven and eight thousand dollars. The board and administration believe this issue is important enough to be considered in a special election. During the last election, we felt there were several ballot issues that overshadowed the millage. In order to move forward, if the millage passes, or develop a new plan, should the millage fail, the earliest election date allowed under law, made sense. February 14 was the first available election date and thankfully we are having a mild winter. We’re hopeful for sunshine on voting day.
4.Representatives of the Highland School District have indicated repeatedly that the voters were “misinformed”, during the November election. What new information has the District presented or meetings have been hosted since then that could be utilized to best inform the voters of the district with information, they were lacking in the November election?
During the last election, the biggest misconception was that an incorrect formula was being utilized by a number of people to calculate their potential change. This lead people to believe that they’d be paying thousands more in taxes when that is most certainly not the case. During the last election and during this election we have tried consistently to refer voters to the correct information concerning the cost. We continue to encourage each voter to call the tax collector in their county to find out how much the individual cost will be to them. Voters who have called have been surprised the cost is less than they had expected. It has been said the district has no long range planning, in fact the application to apply for partnership funding began in 2019 – three years of planning alone. The new school will have three additional classrooms. At the current growth rate, this will serve the community well for the foreseeable future, and the design would allow for seamless additions to the building if needed. This is a much-needed long term solution for an aging building that will soon be raising concerns of being labeled a facility in distress if we cannot land on a solution.
5.The legal terminology on the ballot reads that the revenue generated from the millage, if passed “can be used by the District for other school purposes.” This line has led to a lot of discussion about essentially providing a blank check to the district to utilize excess revenue. Kara McEntire indicated in an editorial last week in this publication that the line is required by state law and is included on all bond issues by the attorney. According to McEntire, “Based on the bond size and projected interest rates, there is projected to be little to no surplus revenue from the 8.9new mills. Some projected rates and payment amounts are below. Based on the projected revenue of $1,600,000 from the 8.9 mills, if the rate on the proposed bond issue is 4.30% or lower, there may be a slight surplus revenue from the proposed 8.9 debt mills. If the bond rate is higher than 4.30%, there may be a slight deficit. Current projections are for the rate to be in the 4.25 percent to4.50 percent range. ”With this being said, several questions have been presented to this media agency about the $30 million possibly not being enough to adequately fund the project if there is a “slight deficit”. This is also without any accounting in the estimate for maintenance to the facility. Do you think the District will again come to the public for an additional increase in millage in the foreseeable future if this is not enough to fund the project? Why or why not?
A for vote in the upcoming election will be a vote for the future of the Highland School District. Again, if the millage passes in February, the district will know the budget, and will stay within the budget to build the proposed new school. We do not anticipate returning to the voters if there is a deficit. Every building at our school has operating expenses and an operating fund. Because of factors such as energy efficiency and an air-tight building envelope, we anticipate the operational costs of a new facility to be less than that of maintaining the current high school.
6. Many have asked the question regarding cutting costs to possibly fund the project with a lower millage and have asked the rea-son the performing arts center must be attached to the high school when in the first special election it was a stand-alone facility and was rejected by voters. Would the district consider building a high school without the center if the 8.9 mill increase doesn’t pass and consider a lower millage increase? Why or why not?
The best time to build is always- now. Construction material and costs will only continue to increase if we allow years to pass before landing on a longer term solution. Districts of our size need facilities to teach in and for our students to thrive. Whether we prolong the need for the facilities and pay for them later or take advantage of the $6.3 mil-lion in state assistance is up to the voters. Our school has been used for community events of all kinds. The performing arts center would pro-vide a home for students with fine arts interest and talents for programs such as Band, Choir, and Theatre to host performances. When creating this plan, we were focused on the future. The future of our community. If it fails during a special election, we’ll have a clear indication that certainly a new plan must be discussed and implemented. After February 14, we’ll begin to working toward whatever is next. We’ll either get to work on accepting bids to begin construction or we’ll start collecting community feed-back once again.
7. While the district has answered many questions posed to them on social media, through emails on the website and in person, several have spoken out about the lack of internet access in the district due to it being at 72 percent poverty level. What media or other ways has the district utilized to assist in relaying information to the taxpayers of the district ?
We have utilized multiple media methods to reach our taxpayers in the district. Since the beginning of the last election, the following have been accomplished through efforts of the district and our Highland Proud support group:- Held two informational meetings at the high school cafeteria after-hours to allow community members to attend and ask questions about the millage proposal and/or tour the high school campus- Attended and spoke at several civic meetings prior to the election, including the Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Sharp County Retired Teachers, Hardy Timely Club, Cherokee Village City Council, and Lions Club- Had an informational booth set up at the Spring River Chamber of Commerce’s Fall Business Expo- Had an information-al booth set up at each campus during parent-teacher conferences for families to stop by and view the renderings and ask questions- Had an informational booth set up a home football games and passed out flyers and visited with patrons- Held multiple car-rider line events where members of the community and students held in-formational signs and passed out flyers during car rider dismissal a tour campuses- Mailed out information-al postcards to mail routes in the Highland Distict- Sent home informational letters to families of students in the District- Created a call chain where board members and administration personally reached out to persons in the community- Social media campaign -including videos and graphics on district Facebook page & Highland Proud millage support page- Invited KAIT Region 8 News to interview Mr. Lewis about the election- Newspaper articles and Letters to the Editor were included in local circulations- Had Q&A documents posted, along with renderings of the proposed facility on the district website- Placed signage through-out the district- Interviewed on local radio station show and informational PSAs were provided as well.
Dave Gruger- Cherokee Village resident, former electrical engineer with a child in the district.
Jamie Stallsmith- My husband and I bought our house in Cherokee Village in 2018. We both retired and moved here permanently in the fall of 2022. I’m a graduate of Arkansas State University and a retired educator for Shelby County Schools(Memphis area). I was a teacher the first10 and an administrator for 22. I ended my career as Principal of Snowden School. Snowden was built in 1910 and is home to 1500Pre-k to eighth grade students.
1. Regardless of which side of the millage proposal you are on, what is the single most important reason for your support or opposition to the 8.9 mill increase?
Gruger: I’m opposed to an increase in its current presented form, and it is because the School District or Board has yet to provide engineered drawings on which to base a believable price tag to a new school. An Architectural Rendering does not provide this. Basically, what they are doing is asking me to give them a blank check with no plans.
Stallsmith: This is not the right time, with high inflation rates, to ask citizens to pay for such a huge undertaking.
2. One of the things that has been repeatedly discussed amongst taxpayers is the alleged lack of long-term planning for the proposed construction of the new high school by the district. When did the district first establish a plan for the school and how or when was it put out to the public and in what way? When and how much information did you find out about the proposed millage increase to construct a new high school? Did you attend any meetings at the school prior to the November election? Why or why not?
Gruger: In my opinion (and I know this question was intended for the School board to answer), they have not provided adequate planning as my experience in Commercial Electrical Engineering, absolutely no client we ever had, private or government would ask for a bid without drawings and specifications in which to bid off of, besides, the client, this case the school district, would have no recourse to enforce the bid price. I did not attend one of the school board meetings, I either had prior engagements or simply saw it as a waste of time when they couldn’t present drawings, but I did read the mileage initiative. Stallsmith: I found out about the proposed millage increase the summer of 2022. I did not attend the district’s meetings but followed the proposal through the Spring River Chronicle and the district’s website.
3. As a taxpayer and voter, what are the pros and cons you see of a Special Election being set at this time to pass the millage in an attempt to be able to utilize state funding?
Gruger: Within a month, the school board decided to spend money to push this initiative again, even after a resounding no vote from citizens but my understanding is the cost is well above $10,000, I could be incorrect. I see this as a sneaky way to get a blank check since its historically proven not as many show to vote on off elections and I feel the money spent could have been spent on drawings then bring it to voters.
Stallsmith: I’m not against trying to get the matching grant, I think coming back with the exact same proposal that was voted down is a waste of taxpayer money. I would have like to have see open com-munity forums where the district listened to ideas and concerns from voters.
4. What information have you gained since November from the district’s coverage and what, if any, additional information would you like to have seen the district provide to the voters to better inform them about the issue if you were to change your decision?
Gruger: It’s black and white what they wanted and they want us to do. So with no real idea of how and what was going to be involved inbuilding this, I think most people are smart enough to not accept a bid over the phone sight unseen from a contractor then expect quality and exactly what you thought it would be. I wonder how many folks that got new roofs didn’t get bids and exacts of what was being done, I would venture to say none. One would think someone in those positions would have enough knowledge to obtain drawings and bids based off those drawings and specs. I would be more apt to vote for the increase, again, if they were to provide us with where and how the money is being spent. You can’t do that, again, without drawings and specs. In my opinion, they haven’t changed or provided anything different than before the initiative failed.
Stallsmith: I have followed the superintendent’s talks and have gleaned no additional information the would cause me to change my vote.
5. Because the funding has always been a huge question by the public regarding the issue, how do you feel about the information provided about the “can be used by the District for other school purposes” phrase on the ballot? What do you think the District could change to make it more agreeable or possibly change your mind on the issue for you to vote in favor?
Gruger: My understanding of the “can be used by the District for other school purposes” is something that the State requires, I have not confirmed this by reading state law as of yet to gather an opinion. I defiantly can see the School Board returning to the ballot asking for more funds. I can easily see this project being more than $40 million, with cost over runs and not knowing because they haven’t done their due diligence by obtaining drawing before asking for money. My opinion on the phrase of “used for other school purposes,” I wonder if they could simply put in the initiative (if this in fact is a phrase the state requires), maybe something like “The School District will use excess funds to pay off the bond early” or maybe “If any excess funds are available, these funds will be used to better our security system”.
Stallsmith: The district in conjunction with the school board needs to listen to the public and develop a different plan
6. Would you be agreeable with constructing a new high school only with a lower millage increase? Why or why not?
Gruger: Should the District want my vote, and my opinion for what it’s worth as someone who has kids in school there and another coming up, I need to see engineered drawings and three competitive bids for the project.
Stallsmith: No, the burden on tax payers is too great right now. I do think we may need to have a millage, but its use should be to enhance what we have and used to attract the best teachers.
7. How did you first learn about the proposed millage increase and have you reached out to the administration with questions you might have of them regarding the millage? Were these questions answered adequately?
Gruger: I first learned by hearing it was going to be placed on the November ballot, then read it through the many initiatives submitted to be voted on. My wife sent in a question to be answered on video, it was answered and in no way was I satisfied with it. They failed to answer adequately why they didn’t get drawings for a better understanding of how much it’s going to cost. Because it cost a lot of money don’t get it, I bet his roof, if damaged and replaced wasn’t done without a bid estimate. Don’t get me wrong, we need a new school and one that our kids can learn in without fear of the evil in today’s world. I am against this because they are quite frankly, putting the cart before the horse and expecting it to do its job. They have no idea of what this school will cost, they don’t, they haven’t gotten competitive bids on it and won’t be able to until they have engineered drawings and specifications, plain and simple and If they think we were misinformed on the issue, maybe they are the ones misinformed on how to build something, anything.
Stallsmith: I have reached out via the district’s website and it was partially answered by Superintendent Lewis. I asked for a comparison of a new build to repairing the existing building. His response was $19,000,000. It was partial because this cost included the performing arts center. From experience, I know these buildings cost more than standard classrooms.