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Published in Print: December 8, 2004, as Arkansas Facilities Study Sees $2.3 Billion in Needs

Arkansas Facilities Study Sees $2.3 Billion in Needs

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Arkansas must spend nearly $2.3 billion to improve school buildings, a study issued last week says, setting up a legislative battle that could determine how schools and school districts are configured in the state for years to come.

The facilities study, released by a task force appointed by state lawmakers, is a guide for legislators as they start debate on how much to spend, and how to distribute any new money, to improve public school campuses. While some state leaders were surprised at the high price tag set by the task force, others said the amount would cover virtually all legitimate school building needs.

“I think it’s doable, but I think it’s not going to be done overnight,” said Sen. Shane Broadway, a Democrat who co-chaired the state’s legislative committee on school facilities. His committee appointed the panel that issued the Nov. 30 report.

Sen. Broadway acknowledged that the plan could take a decade or more to implement, and he said that the state might be able to rely on economic growth and some existing funds to pay for the recommended work. A new sales tax or other funding mechanism, he added, would be a last resort.

The study calls for about $86.7 million in emergency repairs, which some lawmakers say can be done fairly quickly and would be relatively affordable. But the next step carries a much heftier price tag: $1.67 billion in other renovations and repairs that involve the regular functions of schools, such as electrical wiring and air-conditioning systems.

In addition, the study found a need for $110.6 million in less immediate building improvements, and nearly $407 million in less critical changes to campuses, such as new cabinets and paving.

Lawmakers began committee meetings last week to address the school facilities report. The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the state to address school building needs in its Lake View v. Huckabee ruling in 2002, which also forced an overhaul of the state’s school finance system. ("Court Orders Arkansas To Fix K-12 Funding," Dec. 4, 2002.)

Debate Begins

Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, said in an October interview that the state could not afford a school construction plan in the billions of dollars. Last week, the governor called the $2.3 billion price tag “staggering,” but praised the facilities study as meticulous. The state can spread the costs over time and use an estimated $118 million in a general state improvement fund to pay for school repairs, he said.

Earlier, in the October interview, Mr. Huckabee also suggested that Arkansas might need to create school designs that could be replicated across the state as a way to save money. “Not immediately, but I think over time there will be a move toward a more predictable design [of schools],” he said. “What we’re going to have to build for is function.”

Architect Scott Fendrick studies the conditions of Heber Springs High School.
Architect Scott Fendrick studies the conditions of Heber Springs High School with Arkansas lawmakers in August.
—File photo by Mike Wintroath/AP

But task force members rejected that recommendation earlier this year.

State leaders might find it easier to agree on increasing the state’s role in planning and paying for school facility work.

Arkansas pays about 40 percent of school building costs, said Kellar Noggle, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

He is optimistic that lawmakers are serious about following the court order to improve facilities, but concedes that local taxpayers will still have to help. “The burden is going to continue to reside a great deal at the local level,” he said, “and the state is going to put more in, and they’re going to do it at a much greater level of equity.”

The day after the study was unveiled, Sen. Broadway and a Republican colleague, Sen. Dave A. Bisbee, proposed some new steps for financing school facilities.

Mr. Broadway said he would start with the $86 million in emergency needs, and wants the state education department to consult with school districts on their next priorities.

Rural education leaders said they hoped the facilities study would encourage the state to provide better buildings, but were fearful the plan would lead the legislature to push indirectly for more school consolidations. Many small communities continue to reel from the state’s requirement that 57 small districts merge with others in that group or with larger neighbors this past summer. ("Arranged Marriage," Nov. 24, 2004.)

More Mergers?

Jimmy Cunningham, the president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, said he also dislikes the governor’s idea of look-alike buildings.

“No one wants the same color car, the same truck, and we certainly don’t want our schools to look the same,” he said of the prototype-schools proposal.

Sen. Bisbee said publicly last week that he expected the consolidation battle to resume when the 2005 legislative session begins in January. Meanwhile, Sen. Broadway tried to temper worries about more consolidations, saying last week that most future school or district mergers would happen as funding and enrollment declines require them.

Others stressed a need to focus on local control of decisions.

Douglas C. Eaton, the director of facilities services for the 25,000-student Little Rock schools, said he generally agreed with the task force’s call for $111 million in new spending on his district, the state’s largest. Mr. Eaton said he wants the state’s future standards for school buildings to allow districts to request waivers as necessary.

Vol. 24, Issue 15, Pages 20,22

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