Michelle Peterson of Cherokee Village, chairwoman of the newly organized Citizens for Highland School District Accountability speaks and takes questions of a large audience Jan. 5 at the group’s first meeting. The group’s goal is to once again make the voices of the 2/3majority who overturned the 8.9 mill increase in November be heard. A Special Election to attempt again to pass the millage has been set for Feb. 14 with early voting beginning Feb. 7.
By: Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor
Main Reasons for Opposition to Millage increase
• Lack of long term planning
• Absence of competitive bids for the estimated$30 million building project
•No plan to utilize excess revenue to pay off the debt
A group of voters representing the interests of the 62.8 percent majority who voted against an 8.9 mill increase for the Highland School District in November organized to again overturn the millage initiative. It will be placed on the ballot Feb. 14 for a special election. The chairwoman of the group, Citizens for Highland School District Accountability, Michelle Peterson, organized a meeting which was held on Jan.5 at the Thunderbird Recreation Center. Peterson explained while she was not opposed to the district building a new high school, she found there were many concerns voiced to her regarding the reasons the district quickly moved forward with the plan. Peterson, a retired teacher and former Highland High School English teacher said she first learned of the proposed millage increase from an article posted in this newspaper on Dec.14.She formed the group after being approached by several citizens and donors who wished to help with costs associated with the campaign.
Why a Special Election? Less than a month after the millage was defeated during the Nov. 8 General Election by a to 2290 to1357 margin, the Highland Schoolboard voted Dec. 1 in a special called meeting to again place the pro-posed millage increase on the ballot. Superintendent Jeremy Lewis said, “Obviously we feel like there is a need for a new facility and we feel like safety is a big issue. This is a decision for the next generation or next 30years or so.” Public Relations Coordinator Kara McEntire said the district reviewed feedback after the General Election and said she felt they have addressed the concerns of the public.
“I think we addressed them as they came up, for people to get a better understanding. We tried to get as many people as possible but there is always going to be groups who are misinformed. There is always misinformation out there. ”Voters at the meeting indicated that there had been no new information placed on the Facebook page created for the millage Highland Proud since announcing the millage had been over-turned in November. The meeting at Thunderbird brought out a large crowd of voters who, like Peter-son, sought answers regarding the reasons the district chose to not accept the voter’s wishes and how to move forward in an attempt to overturn the millage again. The main discussion, presented by Peterson and Cherokee Village resident Kathleen In-galls cited reasons she and others have cited as to why millage had not passed. Among the largest was the lack of long term planning, viable options other than new construction, focus on aesthetics overeducation and no plan to repay debt with excess tax revenues from the millage. Other concerns were the passage of the new state law regarding re-appraisal of personal property values every three years as opposed to the current five. Non transparency to the public in regard to answering questions submitted or being allowed on the agenda of board meetings was also a concern voiced by several at the meeting.
Why would a retired school teacher take on such a large and important issue? Peterson said she wasn’t made aware of the first 8.9 proposed millage increase plan until September. After learning about the two public meetings being hosted at the school through the newspaper, she and her husband attended and walked through with building with Superintendent Jeremy Lewis and Assistant Super-intendent John Sinclair. They also asked questions of the board members. “When it was defeated, I knew someone had to come to the plate and be a voice for the majority. So, I decided to put myself out there. Knowing that as a re-tired teacher I was going to be persecuted about it because I was inside the school district. I think we need to come together to be fair to the community. I wholeheartedly believe we need a full study of all options…not just building. I don’t believe a full study was done. We haven’t seen competitive bids. We have not seen the reports at the level we need to see. ”Peterson explained she has conducted hours of research from viable sources utilizing her experience as along term teacher. She said, “Other districts across the country have done a three to five year study before they even ask voters to fund a $30 million plus new high school. That hasn’t happened here. If we are going to be fair, we need to listen to both sides. You aren’t going to be well informed if you don’t listen to all the arguments.”
What will it really cost the voters? Ingalls, a voter from Cherokee Village who moved to the city two years ago living on Lake Omaha also attended the walkthrough meeting prior to the November election. She said her reason for moving to the area two years ago for an early retirement was to care for her disabled granddaughter. The low tax rate made it feasible. Shorty after moving, she dis-covered the Suburban Improvement District lawsuit. Originally, she paid $1250 in property taxes. The suit added an additional $750 to her taxes the first year. When she heard about the millage, Ingall’s called Fulton County to inquire about increase would be due solely to the possible passage of the 8.9 additional mills. She was told her taxes would increase $550. She explained this was in combination with the increase in property tax assessments that will now happen every three years. This year all properties will be reassessed and based on historical data, the increase is typically between thirty to fifty percent. “If you look at that exponentially, even if you have a house that is market-able for $100,000 to$150,000, when these things increase, 80percent of whatever we pay is going straight to the schools,” Ingall’s explained. Full discretion over surplus tax revenues discussed and A.L. Hutson Center issues Other concerns dis-cussed included the District’s language on the ballot issue. Peter-son said, “The school district is having full discretion to do what-ever they want with the surplus tax revenues which is going to be huge, especially if this passes before we have a reassessment this year in Sharp County. So who knows what that number is going to be. She went on to say, “For 28 years the voters will have no say so with what they do with that surplus tax revenue. That was not transparent by the school district.” Peter-son went on to cite the reality that the project would go over the $30million budget as it had gone over budget with the A.L. Hutson Center. She spoke of how the district had hastily constructed the facility without benefit of a complete study or a hydrology study. “They (the district) replaced that floor two times, I have heard from others they have had to replace it four times. If we don’t speak up now, they are going todo this project in the same way they did the A.L. Hutson, which is not spending the frontend and doing a full on study. We need to make sure what we are doing with this money is the right thing for the district. If we do it wrong, you are talking a huge increase in what it is going to cost do the building,” she explained. A comparison was made of a person entering a bank and asking for a loan by simply showing photos of a home one wants were not sufficient criteria for a bank, so they shouldn’t be for a school district to present to the voters The audience speaks out. One audience member became enraged and stormed out of the meeting after asking the identity of board members and being told Jason Rhodes was the board president. “Here is your reason. This man is here to take money out of our pocket. He is here todo it again and I am not paying for it. ”Others spoke about the school board not having a written policy they could find related to the public speaking at board meetings with questions or concerns. While Peterson said she attended a board meeting in which she understood questions and ideas were required to be submitted in advance. She said she was told “If we disagree with your ideas or questions, we will deny you to speak. I am sorry, but that is unconstitutional. You cannot deny someone the right speak if they have a grievance with a board member or superintendent.” Ingalls who also attended, said she also heard the comment, but did not indicate which board member told them they wouldn’t be heard. Peterson said she understood there were boundaries in regard to simply attacking someone, but felt if there was evidence based information they should be allowed to speak. “When they have a podium to address people who are positive about the board members and superintendent, positive about the district as a whole, they have to have a podium for the opposite voice and opposing dissent and there are Constitutional laws and precedence supporting that. ”Where did the cost of new school come from? An audience member questioned where the $30 million cost estimate came from for the construction and whether are not there were options for remodeling or other options for a combination of both. Numerous attendees spoke about how the lack of options presented being a huge concern to them. Peterson explained it is an Arkansas law that if a district is spending $20,000 in federal funds and $10,000 instate funds, competitive bids are required and that they haven’t seen those for the construction of the new high school. Also of concern was there was no money budgeted for the maintenance of the building. Concerns with lack of maintenance and safety and addition of only three class-rooms with new high school Ingalls said when touring the building she saw what she knew to be microcracks in the concrete. After living through two F5 tornadoes she explained she believed that was the cause of the cracks. She asked the superintendent what the district did with the insurance funds. “We were under insured, was his reply.” She also spoke about on how well the district presented the remodel at the elementary school. Other issues that were presented to those touring the school were water leaks and electrical issues that had been on-going for many years. The new school will only be adding three new classrooms. Discussion from the audience ensued about growth of the district and Peterson explained the growth has declined over the last four years and stated that during the first meetings, Lewis explained the new school would be able to house students for thirty to forty years. Safety concerns were something that Peterson said have been an issue since Columbine and have not been addressed by the district until now. “Why would anyone build the A.L. Hutson Center before the safety and needs of the students it houses everyday are met? State mandated safety plans were put into place in Arkansas School Districts a few years ago. Resident offers to help group file cease and desist order A Cherokee Village resident who has served under various governors explained to the group he has read over the legalities of the Special Elec-tion and volunteered to serve as a consultant to the group. He thanked Peterson for helping and explained Cherokee Village has a lot more long term issues with the passage of the millage than other cities because they represent the majority who pay the taxes. “If this goes through, no one is going to look to buy property here. It has a lot of repercussions. I don’t want to sound selfish, aside from the educational issues.” He cited the Arkansas Board of Ethics stating the school board is required to represent the “community’s interest,” which includes not just education, but prosperity to the people. He said the main issue for the short term is to defeat the special election and again overturn the proposed millage increase. “I think the biggest thing have I have noticed in reading from the Board Code of Conduct is the requirements of the board and right now they are in violation. Actually, having this election kicked down is a good thing. That shows their lack of discipline and responsibility to the community by doing this special election right after generalizing it.” He said he would support putting together a cease and desist order for the group to file with the court and also suggested through past experience that the possibility of filing an injunction was also an option for the group. Concerns with parking lot plans for new school Other concerns included in the meeting indicated the parking lot for the new school which would be utilizing part of the current A.L. Hutson Center lot, which has an underground spring and water main for the city of Cherokee Village running beneath. This is according to a former water department employee. This was part of the issues with the gym’s construction and replacement of at least one of the floors, the other was from a sprinkler system activating after freezing when adequate heat wasn’t left on within the facility. According to an audience member, a hydrology study wasn’t conducted on the A.L. Hutson Center. Had it been completed, it could have detected the spring and likely prevented many of the issues. Alleged scare tactics utilized Another resident explained “scare tactics” were used at the original meetings telling residents of the district that the state would have to “takeover” if the millage didn’t pass. While this news agency covered the meeting, Aliza Jones, facilities consultant who was present for the meeting, explained what a failed campaign millage MIGHT mean. “If the millage fails the first time, the district is notified by the state facilities division, asking if there is anything they can do to assist and if the district is going to go for a second campaign. If they do and a second campaign fails, the division comes back in and says, “We need to help you.” If the campaign fails a third time, the facilities division CAN come in and take over. It has happened in the past.” She did not indicate what criteria must be met first be-fore the state “takes over” or how often this happens. Research indicates when the state comes in to take over a district, the first jobs to be eliminated are administrative positions, as was evidenced with the closure of the Williford School District in 2009, not those of teachers. Schools stance on special election In September, Superintendent Jeremy Lewis contacted this news agency with the wish to be transparent to the public and let them know about the original millage plan after the establishment of the “Our Kids, Our Community, ”Highland Proud millage campaign kicked off. Two public meetings were held with one offering tours of the facility to the public. The Highland School District can be awarded $6.3 million in partnership funding through the Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation for assistance with funding for the construction of a new high school. Lewis explained at that time, even if the 8.9 millage were to pass, the district would still be be-low the average. What will the proposed new school include? The new school would house 38 class-room including science labs, a vocational agriculture building to replace the current one that is crumbling and braced, a new cafeteria and kitchen and a 900 seat performing arts auditorium. If passed, the new high school will sit between the A.L. Hutson Center and Elementary School. The older buildings will be torn down. Lewis said the state requires these be demolished. The CTE building will become the new Pre-K Center. The building where band is will become a maintenance shop and the field house, built in 2012, will also remain. Lewis stated at the first September meeting the district has no option to remodel the building. The partner-ship funds can only be utilized for new construction. There are certain areas within the 60 year old building that simply can’t be repaired or replaced. How much will it cost the average taxpayer? In order to calculate the amount the millage will cost multiply the appraised value of property by 20 percent and then by .0389 per year. That is then multiplied by 12. For example, a home with an appraised value of$100,000 currently has an assessment of$20,000. If the millage is passed, the taxpayer will pay $778 per year, prior to any increases expected with the new appraisals this year. To calculate the total, simply take the appraised value of your property, multiply it by twenty percent to get the assessed value, You will then multiply the total by .0389 to get the annual millage. To determine the difference the 8.9 mills will increase a resident’s taxes over the current 30 mills first multiply the assessed value (20 percent of appraisal) by .0300 and the a second time by the .0389. The difference between the two numbers is the new rate with the millage increase.
When and where can residents vote? While the weather is a concern in February, early voting begins on Feb. 7 at the Sharp County Courthouse. If a voter lives in Fulton, County who pays taxes in the Highland School District, they may vote at the Sharp County Courthouse during early voting. All voters in both Sharp and Fulton county can vote at all regular voting centers on election day, Feb.14. Anyone living in Fulton County or Sharp County can also vote at any of the Sharp County voting centers or the one that will be open in Fulton County.The following locations will be open on election day. Ash Flat- Courthouse, courtroom, Glencoe- Fire Station Cherokee Village-City Hall, Hardy, Civic Center Highland- Fire Department. Williford- Newsong Baptist Church. The ballot is available online at arkansasvoterview.com