By: Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor
For the second time in three months the voters in the Highland School District have answered the call to vote. This time in a Special Election on only the8.9 mill increase. Again, on Feb.14, they said no. The Special Election was held because administrators and the board stated there was misinformation presented during the General Election. Kara McEntire, Highland’s Student Services Director, Testing Coordinator, Federal Programs Coordinator and Public Relations Coordinator said she felt the Special Election would al-low the district time to clarify actual amounts the millage would cost taxpayers and would not be “overshadowed” by other issues on the ballot. She explained there was a an “incorrect formula” for taxpayers to accurately estimate their increase. She another administrators, including Superintendent Jeremy Lewis encouraged them to call the assessor’s office to obtain the correct amount. 2,297 voters turned out in the largest school Special Election in Sharp County history. The millage failed with 1602voters rejecting the millage and 693 voting in favor of it. This is nearly a 70 percent margin of “Against” votes (69.74 including Fulton County votes.) The percentage of those opposing the millage was greater than in the Nov. 8 General Election. Those results which were 2290 “Against” and 1357“For” or (67.53 percent of the 3,391 ballots cast in Sharp County. With Fulton County, the percentage remained about the same)The millage, was to be utilized to build anew high school with an attached 900 seat performing arts center for the Highland School District. Had the millage passed, the district would have been able to utilize $6.3 million instate partnership funding Commission for Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation and host various band, choir and performing arts events. It is unclear what will hap-pen with the funds if the millage doesn’t pass if the District chooses to present the 8.9 mill option a third time to the voters. In Aug. 2019, the District held another Special Election that proposed a 4.0 mill in-crease. That proposal failed by 58.5 percent margin. At that time, the district planned to construct only the per-forming arts center, and it would have been separate from the actual school building. Security upgrades were also part of the first Special Election. The District hosted their first organizational meeting for the8.9 mill increase, in September of last year. At the meeting, Aliza Jones, Highland’s facilities consultant and president of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators was present and 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. At a second campaign, if it 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 takeover. It has happened in the past.” Jones did not elaborate on how often or whether the criteria for a “take over” in past situations came from a district not passing a millage for a new school. She went on to ex-plain that the failed millages show the district is not moving forward, the district could lose the partnership funding because they could not pay their portion of the funding. Between the November and the Feb. 14 Special Election, school administrators answered public questions online in an attempt to encourage a vote for the millage. They also presented estimates from the county assessor on what proponents proposed tax increase would be if the millage were to pass. This Special Election drew also drew staunch opposition and resulted in the formation the public group “Citizens for Highland School Accountability. ”The group formed after learning in December of the District’s plan to host a taxpayer funded Special Election in 60days, after being defeated in November by a two thirds margin. The group founder, Michelle Peterson, said she gained a lot of support from the large percentage of voters who voted against the millage, many both times. They large group held public meetings, purchased yard signs, banners and a billboard with several community members and prior educators presenting arguments against the mill-age. Many were related to what they felt was the lack of long term planning and estimates, public accountability, as well as the ballot language and upcoming reappraisals in Sharp County that would further raise already strapped taxpayers bills. The Special Election process has been very divisive in the community. The district also underwent strong criticism in many public forums regarding the use of tax payer funded school messaging applications to promote a votes for the millage. Several parents contacted this news agency about the district hosting a meeting for seniors attempting to persuade them to vote for the millage as well as utilizing students holding signs as a way to sway voters. The loss forces administrators and the board of education to return to the table for the third time to decide on which path they will take in regard to the ultimate goal of obtaining a new high school. Many who were asked why they were voting for the measure all had the same answers, that the new school was for the children and to better the future. Members of the opposition said they felt it was fiscally irresponsible for the district to bridle two generations of students with a $30 million debt based only upon an architectural rendering. Sitting in the audience at the Sharp County Courthouse awaiting election results on Feb. 14 representing the Highland School District was Superintendent Jeremy Lewis, former Superintendent Don Sharp, Assistant Superintendent John Sinclair and Administrators Kara McEntire and Kelly Goodson, as well as School Board member Danny Gibson. Superintendent Jeremy Lewis was gracious to the election committee and thanked the public for their support and said he respected those who voted against the millage as well. The District is currently making plans to move forward and said, “There is no win or lose when it comes to student, school, and community success. We are all ONE. Based on the special election results, our community did not support the proposed project. The Highland School Board and Ad-ministration will work to develop a plan to address our facilities’ needs after receiving feedback from the community/stakeholders and carefully considering our options moving forward. It is very important that a plan is developed that our whole community can support and that will keep the Highland School District moving forward. ”The SRC will continue to update the public on this story.