Planning notes from Superintendent Gooden

guest commentary from Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.

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. 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.

What may seem like a bold move today, will likely become a reasonable expectation when viewed as a past decision after another quarter-century. There is no doubt that the addition of Southside High School fifty years ago was seen by some as a move to the outskirts of the city. However, today that location is a center of activity and growth.

Slow and steady growth in enrollment at Fort Smith Public School campuses has prompted the Board of Education to heighten its study of future options for managing space and programs in the District’s junior and senior high schools. These discussions involve more than just classroom space and include a study of a variety of organizational options and instructional program choices for the future.

This slow and steady growth in enrollment may be the most difficult to address, since these trends lack the dramatic increases in student numbers which make an immediate solution essential and obvious. The modest growth allows those who are not directly involved to miss the clear trends which call for planning and action for the future. While FSPS has grown almost 1,500 students during the last decade, the distribution of the growth makes it unnoticeable to many.

Nonetheless, the Board of Education is continuing to study the options with an eye toward the future of Fort Smith Public Schools and the region. Multiple enrollment projections have been developed by District staff as well as outside consultants.  Their projections validate the growth trends. While the timeline is variable, the Board of Education has chosen a long-term solution which will take FSPS and the community into the future.

The Board annually reviews building needs at every campus and has continued to address space and program requirements throughout the school district with additions and renovations on many local campuses. In 2007, a comprehensive review of growth trends and future projections began and has continued in several subsequent updates. The Board determined that future requirements called for more space for high school and junior high students — to match the already completed additions in elementary schools. They directed the Superintendent to identify several options for consideration. In 2010, four possible sites for a future secondary school were identified. The list was pared to two sites which the Board of Education visited. They ultimately selected a site at Chaffee Crossing as the best in view of population growth, terrain and cost. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority committed an 80-acre site for a future school to the District. Subsequent to a study of possible campus designs, the acreage was expanded to 98 acres.

The Board of Education also considered a number of options which would address additional space while looking to a long-term future. Several options included a range from “doing nothing” to using temporary buildings in response to growth. Both these options were rejected as inconsistent with best practice. Other more permanent options included building space at each current campus, realigning grades to include grade 9 on high school campuses, adding a separate campus for ninth-grade students, and adding an additional high school for grades 9-12 with realignment of current junior and senior high school student assignments. Each option was reviewed with regard to pros and cons.

After considerable study, the tentative preferred option includes building a new campus on the Chaffee Crossing property and dividing the total grade 9-12 population among three campuses using a method to be determined. Were this option implemented now, each campus would serve more than 1,400 students. This configuration would also allow District administrators the option of moving grade 6 onto existing junior high campuses. This 6-8 grade configuration would align the District’s grades with current national testing practices.

An important consideration of any plan is continuing attention to current campuses in terms of improvements. Also tied to this entire progress is a review of secondary school program options to give future students a maximum advantage educationally as they prepare for their futures. A staff and community task force is currently looking at possibilities. Every option is subject to change.

Another important part of the planning involves a district-wide events complex which is separate from a school campus. This complex would include a performing arts center to serve music, theatre and other similar events as well as a multipurpose arena-type facility for indoor sports, graduations and other large group events. By combining these facilities on a common site, shared parking and other development costs will realize economies of scale.

Operating costs are always a concern for any school facility. However, as the student population continues to grow the Foundation Aid formula by which Arkansas schools are funded will support operation costs relative to student enrollment growth.


The Board of Education has directed the Superintendent to pursue an independent study of facility plans in the context of student population growth and future space and program requirements. This process will repeat much of the work which has been done previously from another perspective. While these improvements involve costs, they can be viewed as providing long-term choices to serve the community.

Change — like school enrollment growth — is slow. However, inaction today will ensure a lack of preparedness in future years. The Board of Education is determined to take action today with an eye to the future. It is worthy of note that any dramatic change of this type would not be operational until 2018 or beyond. But, as the Board noted initially, our ability to adequately and appropriately serve the needs of future Fort Smith students  requires planning and action today.

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Southside was viewed as a nice new school for the rich kids

from inside Northside High sometime around 66-68. Looking back though where else did it make any better sense to build it? The majority of people would want this to be built top notch and in the best place for the students again I would think. Who knows maybe they can produce a US Senator too someday.

School Board Priorities

The FSPS should be focusing more on how to introduce new technologies that will carry our youth into the future rather than investing in more brick and mortar. Tablets, wireless network infrastructure, and broadband capacity for the existing schools is the direction we need to be going in.

3rd high school really necessary?

Read an article in last Thursday's Dem Gaz titled "NW up by most in state" that according to the U.S. Census Bureau Fort Smith has actually declined in population since the 2010 census counts. Wonder where the FS school board is getting their information?

Where does school board get numbers?

Increasing enrollment each year. Check it out.

If You Say It Enough and with A Straight Face

I guess if you say anything enough times and with a straight face, regardless how silly, most will believe you.

The Art of Deception

If you tell the same untruthful story over and over, there is a good possibility that the uninformed will gradually start to believe that it is a fact!

Do You Mean

Like saying if you like your health care plan you can keep it and if you like your doctor you can keep him/her? Read my lips, no new taxes! One was said by a democrat and the other said by a republican so does anyone have a quote from the tea party that is a classic that they would like to throw out there to even the score?

by using actual counted students

It's not hard to count warm bodies in a class room, and see that room after room in most of the schools are packed to the legal limit because there is no other room to put a new classroom and hire a new teacher. Now if you asked is the 3rd high school necessary RIGHT NOW? No. but it will be in 4 years, and if you wait until that time, you end up with the fiasco that Bentonville is going through right now. I assure you the third high school option is a lot smaller than the original idea I head heard years ago, which was 3rd high school plus two new jr highs with no grade reallocation.

just asking

When the School District spends millions and millions of tax dollars on a new school, doesn't that mean that there is a whole lot less money in the School Budget for teacher raises? Also, doesn't it mean that the average property tax will go up on homes to pay for the new school? Just asking.

Who Determines "Legal Limit"

Who determines a "legal limit" for a classroom and does the size of the room itself have anything to do with the "legal limit? Is there a "legal limit" to the number of students that one teacher can have in a classroom regardless of the size of the room? Is it possible in todays world to teach students at home via the internet making a bricks and mortar building obsolete? just asking because many colleges offering degrees online and advanced degrees online so why not high school?

"legal limit"

in some states it's decided by the department of education, in others by the legislature. Not sure which it is in Arkansas. Secondary schools a teacher can have a maximum class load of 150 students a day, unless it is a performance based class (a sport, band, orchestra, etc) in which case it is a larger number. Elementary is 35 students in the class. The room size has no part of the decision. The only that could lower the number legally is a classroom size restriction based on an restriction put in place due to some specical education needs children. states that have a large distance learning setup, like Alaska, for example, also have legal limits of how many students a teacher is responsible for grading, discipline, etc. as for why public high schoold don't go into a distance or online learning school, that's a political question. Arkansas does have a Virtual High school that falls under a private charter category type school. The charter school are restricted to a total number of students served by the state department of education depending on the situation and estimated students that can be served. As for the other question about money for a think there is money out there NOW for teacher raises? And yes, a new building in just about any school district will usually involve some type of millage increase. but you know, I pay a whopping $55 on my six figure home in fort smith to the school district. I know this, because I just got my tax assessment bill in the mail today. Are you really going to make an issue over an extra 10-15 a year when it could be returned many times over to better the education in Fort Smith? (also, thanks for the polite discussion and commentary, better than the comments on other threads I read here)