Business group questions need for a third Fort Smith high school (Updated)

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Editor's note: The story is updated with a statement from Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools.

Plans for a third Fort Smith high school are coming under more scrutiny after a Monday (Feb. 24) school board meeting in which a group of concerned residents requested more due diligence be done before the district ultimately decides that another high school is needed.

Plans for a third Fort Smith high school have been discussed for some time, though a formal pitch for the more than $65 million high school was made at a January school board meeting.

At the time, Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of schools, said the district needed a new high school due to continued enrollment increases in the district coupled with an eventual plan to re-align the schools to have freshman be on high school campuses instead of the current configuration, which places freshman in the city's junior high schools.

According to Gooden, the district's current population of 14,313 students was expected to blossom to about 17,000 students by the year 2023, which would necessitate the re-alignment.

Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, was among a group to express concerns with the plan. One of the primary points Sicard makes is financial.

"The concern that we have is with all the operational costs of a third high school," he told The City Wire on Tuesday (Feb. 25). "We don't know what the operational costs of Northside and Southside (High Schools) are, but we guess it's a pretty large number. As students increase, you'll increase operational costs."

Sicard said the concern among himself and about 20 others, including several prominent members of the Fort Smith business community, include the costs not only of a building, but also funding extracurricular facilities, such as gyms and activity centers, as well as administrative offices. The additional costs trickle down all the way to office staff and coaches — all taking away from funding that could go toward academics if the district did not construct a new high school.

The group also expressed concern in a memo to the school board about the impact that developing a third high school in Chaffee Crossing could have on the rest of the community.

"If you drive around town, there are all of these areas throughout the center of the city where you see a lot of vacant homes," Sicard said. "If you built a state-of-the-art high school out on the periphery of our community, it will continue to attract people to that area and result in a lot of vacant houses in the core of our city and declining real estate values and declining appearances of many of the properties in the core of our city."

In addition to the two major concerns of costs and deterioration due to outgrowth, Sicard said the group is also concerned about the district's enrollment projections.

"Some of us in the business community have trouble understanding how enrollment will be as rapid as they are saying (it will be) based on what we are seeing in the economy," he said. "We're questioning whether those projections…we're not doubting the continued growth or (need for more) capacity, but it surprises us that it would be that aggressive."

In order to ensure the district makes the best decision regarding future building needs, Sicard proposed that the district bring in an outside consultant to do a facilities assessment for the district to find out if it building another high school would be in the district's best interest or if expanding the existing schools would be more beneficial. He said he and his business colleagues were asking such questions after comparing Fort Smith to similar-sized districts across the state.

According to figures provided by the Arkansas Department of Education, Fort Smith is on par with most of the state's largest districts in terms of the number of students enrolled and the number of high schools in each district. Following is a list of the state's largest districts with their corresponding number of high schools (2012-2013 school year):
• Little Rock Public Schools: 23,676 students, five high schools;
• Springdale Public Schools: 20,542 students, two high schools;
• Pulaski County Special School District: 17,060 students, five high schools;
• Bentonville Public Schools: 15,081 students, one high school (plans are underway for a second high school);
• Rogers Public Schools: 14,757 students, two high schools;
• Fort Smith Public Schools: 14,313 students, two high schools;
• Cabot Public Schools: 10,172 students, one high school;
• Conway Public Schools: 9,733 students, one high school; and
• Fayetteville Public Schools: 9.421 students, one high school.

Sicard said while it may appear that he and his fellow business leaders are against school funding or the millage increase that could come before voters sometime in the next year or two, it is simply not the case. His group just wants to see the most money possible spent on academics, "to see it used in a way to take us to the next level in way of academic achievement for our students."

He said the fact that the board is taking the time to conduct due diligence was appreciated.

"We don't think they're wrong for (proposing) the third high school, we just have concerns and want all alternatives researched and evaluated due to the concern we have," Sicard said. "We're really grateful that Dr. Gooden and the (school) board were willing to listen to our concerns and pursue a study. We're thankful that they're responsive to some of the concerns in the community and we appreciate that."

Advertisement:

Gooden said he understands and welcomes the review.

“The concerns relative to the emerging plans for an additional high school are reasonable in view of the long-term impact such a project can have on the Fort Smith Public Schools and the community,” Gooden said in a statement. “Any investment of public resources merits careful study by both the elected school board, community leaders and the parents whose children and grandchildren will benefit from school programs and facilities.”

Business leaders who signed the memo to the school board include: Bobby Aldridge, Mike Barr, Shannon Blatt, Kent Blochberger, Phillip Bryant, Gary Campbell, Steve Clark, Brandon Cox, Sen. Jake Files, Richard Griffin, Jason Green, Melissa Haynesworth, Scott McClain, Rep. George McGill, Sam Sicard, Pastor Kevin Thompson, Jim Walcott, and Fred Williams.

Five Star Votes: 
Average: 4.5 (14 votes)

Like This Article? Share It!

Comments

Somebody fess up..who ordered the $325k study?

Are we on a collision course? One group doesn't feel the economy is good enough to attract more people into Ft Smith and another group that some of the same people are in feels it is good enough however to force people to refurbish most structures on Midland, Towson, Grand, and also likely a lot of those rundown and/or empty houses they were looking at? Questioning the need for a high school is fine but this almost seems to be shaping up into a this side of town versus that side of town competition since as much of the talk was about where as anything.

Mr. Sicard, I disagree with

Mr. Sicard, I disagree with the whole premise that growth in Chaffee Crossing will cause property values to go down in other areas of the city. Property values have and will continue to go down because the many slumlords who own these homes are not held accountable.

Show Me The Money

65 Million Tax Dollars on a new school in a declining economy with huge job losses seems a bit strange! How much will home owners property taxes increase and how much will business owners property taxes increase? This sounds like more empire building by the school board and superintendent without doing their homework on where the tax money will come from. Lets get all the facts out and see all the numbers on proposed tax increases before moving forward with this plan so "Show Me The Money".

Thank goodness

Good for these folks for asking the right questions. If a third school is built, I wonder if the school district plans to redraw the high school attendance zones or will they maintain or further increase the de facto racial and economic segregation.

Infrastructure for the new school.

Another consideration that we have not heard about yet is the effect of adding the additional traffic on the roads in the area. South Zero is bumper to bumper and often backed up from Massard to beyond 92nd starting about 6:00 a.m. all the way up to a little after 8:00 a.m. on week days. You are going to add enough cars and buses to get 1400 students plus staff to school? In addition to the traffic for the planned new medical school. Someone might want to check with the state highway department, the agency responsible for this road, to see what there thoughts and plans are for this additional traffic pattern twice a day five days a week plus night time events. It is tough enough getting on to South Zero in this area without the additional traffic.
Another consideration that we have not heard about yet is the effect of adding the additional traffic on the roads in the area. South Zero is bumper to bumper and often backed up from Massard to beyond 92nd starting about 6:00 a.m. all the way up to a little after 8:00 a.m. on week days. You are going to add enough cars and buses to get 1400 students plus staff to school? In addition to the traffic for the planned new medical school. Someone might want to check with the state highway department, the agency responsible for this road, to see what there thoughts and plans are for this additional traffic pattern twice a day five days a week plus night time events. ...>> Read the entire comment.

If I'm not mistaken there are

If I'm not mistaken there are plans to widen the rest of Zero and realign it to Frontier Rd.

Leaders need to educate themselves...

I'd encourage these "business leaders" to actually tour one of our existing high schools, preferably during an open house or other school event. Expansion? How exactly do they expect this to happen? They both have run out of real estate, and building vertically would be expensive, disruptive, and not solve the issue with overcrowding. Our current schools have gotten so big that the kids get *less* opportunity. You can only have so many kids playing on a team, in a band, in a choir, performing in a play, winning the science fair, etc. Many kids get lost in the shuffle, and magically expanding will not solve this.

C-

Real estate has been acquired in the past for the building of practice facilities, sporting venues and parking lots at both high schools. Why is now any different? How is it that other school districts do quite well with 1-2 high schools while serving a larger student population? The questions deserve more than superficial answers.

You could have at least taken

You could have at least taken the time to pull up a map and look at the current school locations before posting... Sure, through eminent domain we could kick some people out of their homes by Northside, but is that really the answer? Now, imagine you own property near the school; it's not much, but what you can afford and more importantly, it's "home". How do you feel about the city giving you pennies on the dollar and a deadline to vacate? As for Southside, please note that adjacent land owners are already doing everything they can to prevent this same tactic from being used. Luckily these property owners were of higher wealth and could afford to develop the property to a higher value.

Room for growth

In the past, land has been acquired and/or homes razed for new sports facilities and parking lots surrounding the existing high schools, particularly Northside. Why is that no longer an option for expansion? Other larger school districts are just as successful with fewer facilities. It sounds like the school district simply wants a shiny new facility to show off and join the new high school crowd with Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville. Or they think this is a great marketing tool for Chaffee Crossing, "hey, come to Chaffee Crossing, where your children will attend schools free of dark skinned poor people". Maybe they can co-opt the Rebel mascot while they're at it.

This is the biggest problem

This is the biggest problem with Fort Smith. It's always a this side vs. that side of town and always someone with a chip on their shoulder. It's mindset that not only holds back Fort Smith, but the region. FYI: If you didn't know, the Fort Smith School District contains more than the City of Fort Smith. Taxpayers in Barling, East Fort Smith, & Chaffee Crossing all deserve to be treated equal.

Pot, kettle

You just said the problem is a "this side vs. that side" mentality, but then insinuate East Side/Chaffee Crossing aren't being treated fairly. How is your position any different than the problem you describe? You are correct, all deserve to be treated equal, therefore we have an obligation to do what is best for the entire community, not just Chaffee Crossing or Riley Farms or Downtown or Northside or Southside or Barling. Due diligence must be performed to ensure we need AND can fully fund three high schools to the extent all students at the three schools can succeed without placing an undue burden on the tax base. And whoever mentioned the Fort Smith kids living in and going to Greenwood schools -- correct me if I'm wrong, but the new high school won't change that fact. District boundaries aren't going to change with a new high school. It is irrelevant to the discussion.

Cutting taxes and spending using Chaffee

Give a "no-new-high school" property tax rebate to each property owner at Chaffee. Let all the good God fearing owners send their kids to the private school in the area. Taxes would be reduced as a further inducement to relocate to the area while cutting pork barrel spending on superfluous projects.

Uh we don't, uh we can't, uh we need to make people..

..pahleaze downtown area property owners you actually can survive another part of town getting some attention too. One of the regulars above even stoops to feign concern about racism he feels so jilted. Only thing is any Ft Smith student can pick any high school they want last I heard. There goes the curve perhaps but it could be the wrong way! Who am I kidding anyhow? This fuss over a new high school isn't really about our children at all, it's about developing a city. Good luck students!

Follow the money

Gen 4, you are partially right. It is about developing for sure. Developing pork barrel contracts for SOB's (Same Old Boys) Contractors is the racket around here. Between projects the contractors can rely upon the inspectors to drum-up some "code work" to tide them over. It doesn't matter what they build or renovate, just as long as municipal tax revenue flows into the cronies pockets.

Really?

Are you seriously pulling a race card? Are you also mad they built a fire station at Chaffee Crossing? Please enlighten us with the racist conspiracy you have for that.

Third High School

We are against building a third high school at Chaffee Crossing for so many reasons. If there is a new school to be built, build it on Midland Blvd. There is so much room around both existing schools, it would be easier to expand and grow there.

beth stephens

Is this a joke?

It's the south & eastern sides of the city that are under-served. Grab a stopwatch and time yourself driving from Chaffee Crossing, Meandering Way/Massard Creek, Fianna Hills, or Riley Farms, and then over to your proposed Midland location... As for room around existing schools, --what???--

Location, location, location!

Is it money, location, or what? The group that met started out with what appears to be a a combination of not needed, too much money, and wrong place. They compared number of students per school here and there but left out sq.ft. which is bound to matter. Now some that don't want it say build it somewhere else which tends to rule out the money and needed part. We're down to location..now who really thinks many if any people who would have located at Chaffee Crossing could be enticed to rebuild a house in a rundown place on the North side instead? Mid level people would rebuild the North side places if they made the money and weren't regulated to death but they need jobs to do it. Looks to me like Chaffee Crossing is creating them.

Mid-level, Middle-aged in a Halfast town.

Middle Class, Middle-aged, Semi-Mid-Retired lovers of vintage homes and old-time downtowns would rebuild the North Side if building codes policy did not demand "all or nothing" restoration ....The money is not the issue, it is the aggravation and capriciousness caused by the city government. If safety is paramount to inspectors, then 90% of the Northside structures should be condemned already. Money isn't the problem. Investment is stalled due to the arbitrariness of policy regarding growth, restoration, restoration and downtown re-development. The momentum is in slow motion...slow enough to stall unexpectedly and permanently. Perhaps the momentum is gone, we only have rumors now.

You might be sorry!

With the old structures the problem is not the city, it's the 1-2% of people that haven't missed a meeting since the '70's. You will want to hug a code inspector when they get through with you.

Always something

It's always something with this town. The schools are a bit crowded and with growth, they'll get worse. Growth. Hmm. That's a concept Fort Smith hasn't thought about in years. Unless it has to do with maintaining some historical marker, this town is against it. Keep it up and the town will become a slum wasteland of historical proportions. As it stands, no kid in high school now or who will graduate in the next 5 years will stick around because there are no jobs here. Unfortunately for the 'city leaders' they don't teach Assembly line production techniques in high school.

Same Old Song Marching Band

It's the same old song on the same old broken record.Yet another attempt by cronies to hype the need for new construction contracts for the plutocrats and kleptocrats, "rats" nonetheless. Indeed this is legalized theft. All of the fuss about planning, zoning, municipal building code enforcement and pork barrel construction municipal bonds point to one thing...a racket. Let's repair what is reparable and raze what is chronically vacant or unsafe and be done with it. Slumlords need to be prosecuted or bought out or their properties condemned if appropriate. It is long past time for definitive action to clean-up this town from the top down and across town....Just do it !!

Downtown Connection?

HOw has no one posted this yet? It's clear what the agenda is here by our downtown leaders. They do not want a new high school in or near Chaffee because it possibly could further erode their property values downtown. See the connection? Look at the names? Even their arguments are weak at best. This is called progress, not regress, which has been Fort Smith's issue for many years. Shame that they cannot see their own greed in action. Note: no one leaving on the East side complained. If any of these people have high school students in their family, lets ask the kids if they want a new school and would be interested in attending. Probably!

Much needed

We need the school. So all the people who are against why are you? Are you jealous that you kids did not get to go there? Everything is moving east for example the new medical school, mall, etc are all coming to Chaffee crossing. There is no room to expand the current high schools they are land locked. This is for the kids not for adults or business with big EGOS.

Let's not get stuck in a rut

Most of the members of this panel have children that attend private schools. They have no real interest in the public schools. They only want the citizens to believe that. Growth is important and with Chaffee donating land and creating new jobs,housing and moving towards Greenwood we will have to be prepared. People don't buy homes that are overpriced with no upkeep in the center of town and that's why they sit. If they are priced accordingly they sell. All the children in 72916 fort smith addresses go to Greenwood Schools and are helping to crowd the Greenwood school district. A great need for a school in a growing district is a must. The addition of a new school will bring new business, housing and job growth. Let's keep letting the land developers who own downtown property and are "city leaders" tell us what we should do. God forbid we get larger industry to make them normal small people again.

New High School

I totally agree with STUCK IN A RUT. If you examine the list of 18 people, each one has a vested interest in downtown or the riverfront. These folks, led by only one or two people, are against anything going on east of 540. They see CC as a threat to them instead of an asset to the entire community. It's too bad because the two areas could both benefit from successes instead of the downtown folks always working against CC. The new Medical School would be such an asset to the third high school. Right across the street-just think of the benefit of the synergy between the two schools. Come on naysayers, try doing something unique or "out of the box" for downtown instead of constantly trying to "poo poo" projects out east.

Reasonable but also highly unusual Dr Gooden

for a group of downtown businessmen and/or community leaders to get together to question a high school and it is happening at such a time when various groups of people who are well represented here on TCW boards would not even so much as bat an eye if $65 million were being spent by taxpayers somewhere near the Arkansas river. A mere coincidence perhaps. I give up on ever receiving an answer about which downtown special interest group actually pushed for the $325k survey which basically serves to confirm our most actively involved local people are of course 100% correct in their line of thinking. Que sera sera.