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Fort Smith school officials make pitch for third high school

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The Fort Smith School District unveiled its master plan through the year 2020 on Monday (Jan. 13), detailing plans for the district, plans that include a third Fort Smith high school at a cost that could be in excess of $65 million.

According to Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden, the need for a third high school is real as enrollment has continued to increase across the district. The district has about 14,000 students, a number expected to increase to about 17,000 by the year 2023.

"In the early 2000s, we started a steady uptick in enrollment and we've continued that until today," he said. "In fact, 2013 was what we thought might be a little plateau. Turns out 2013 was the biggest growth we've had in quite a while."

He said based on the continued increase since the year 2000, he and the Fort Smith Board of Education have been looking at different options for addressing the needs of Fort Smith's High School students. Three options were primarily looked at:
• Do nothing;
• Increase the use of portable buildings on campuses and possibly expand existing campuses;
• Construct a new Fort Smith high school and realign the student populations across all junior high and high school campuses.

The school board chose to go with the latter option, with Gooden stating that a realignment of the secondary campuses would be a phased-in approach, eventually transitioning freshman students into the high school campuses and moving sixth graders to the junior highs.

Were that to happen right now with three high schools, Gooden said all three high schools would have about 1,400 students on a campus consisting of grades 9 through 12. He said a good-sized high school campus is about 1,500 students. Any more, he said, and students start getting lost in the shuffle and can easily fall through the cracks.

As for how to pay for the new facility, Gooden said the school would attempt to find various funding methods in an effort to reduce the burden on taxpayers in the district.

Among these, with the primary outside funding mechanism being state partnership funds.

"Partnership funds are awarded for approved projects pursuant to the Master Facility Plan for approvable costs," read a PowerPoint slide Gooden presented to the public in attendance at Monday's school board meeting. "They are adjusted based on each school district's wealth index which is calculated annually. The FSPS index for 2013-2014 is .34676."

That figure ends up being 34.68% funding for approved projects, he said, adding that other poorer districts can see as much as 70% funding from state partnership funds while other districts such as Fayetteville see very little in the way of funding from the partnership program.

It is not until the district finds out in 2015 how much state partnership money it will receive that leaders on the school board will come to voters to ask for the additional funding by way of a millage increase, something Gooden said the district has not had since 1987.

While he does not want to speculate on what the millage rate increase the district may seek from voters due to the unknown level of funding coming from the state partnership funds, Gooden said it could be as low as 4.5 mills or as high as 6.5, numbers he again emphasized are not set in stone.

School Board President Jeannie Cole said coming to the voters in a year or two for a millage increase would likely be a tough sell, but she and the board are betting on the public's support of public education in a district that appears to be growing at a steady rate.

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"We're going to have to do a good, strong media campaign. We're going to have to sell this to the voters, we know that," she said. "But we're just going to have to believe in it ourselves and we're going to have to go out and tell them, 'Hey, this is for the children. This is for the future of Fort Smith.'Someone paid for your education, it's time for us to step up and pay for these children's education.'"

Cole said voters will have to understand that the new high school would not be a project for students currently in upper grades, but instead for the high number of students rising through the district now in elementary school who could face overcrowding once they get to high school should a new high school not be built.

Should the district receive funding for the new school, to be built at Chaffee Crossing, through both state partnership funds and a millage increase, Gooden said it could open by Fall 2018, though he said a more likely date would probably be 2019.

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