Early voting is underway for a 7.6 mill property tax increase that would fund construction of a new elementary and high school in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District. Election day is Tuesday, February 9, but residents of the district can vote early at the Jacksonville Community Center until Friday and at the Pulaski County Regional Building until Monday.
Laura Walker is a spokeswoman with the Education Corps, an organization advocating for the tax hike. She says if voters approve the millage, the high school project could start this year.
“There are currently two buildings that are on the site where the high school will go that will have to be torn down. Ideally that would begin this summer, continue through the school year. The building of the new schools would begin next year and the first year of school at the new high school would be 2019-2020 school year,” she says.
There are six elementary schools in Jacksonville; two would be closed and replaced by the larger school if the tax increase is passed. There are currently two high schools in the district. Students attending the North Pulaski High School will attend Jacksonville High School in the 2016-17 year. North Pulaski High will be converted into a middle school.
“It gives us the ability to put all of our kids in one place, to not have them separated,” says Walker.
Daniel Gray is the school board president for the 4,000 student district. He says a federal court order from a long-running county desegregation suit requires the district to their improve facilities.
“We have to replace our facilities. There's no ifs ands or buts about it,” he says. “At some point the federal judge could say, 'I gave you all every opportunity and you've got to replace it.' I know of no other funding mechanism besides the property tax to issue bonds and pay for facilities.”
Grays says the school board and other supporters of the millage rate also want to take advantage of the funding cycle beginning in 2017, in order to proceed with their plans. He says the district would generate about 46 million dollars to go toward financing a bond issue. The state of Arkansas will provide about 20 to 25 million dollars to the district and a Department of Defense grant will provide about 8 million dollars for the elementary school, which will be located on federal land. Jacksonville is home to the Little Rock Air Force Base.
Gray says another driving factor for seeking to improve facilities through a tax increase was to convince military families to settle in Jacksonville. He says it has been the case that the district's aging buildings have repelled many transplants.
“We see families moving out of our community when they get here [to] the Little Rock Air Force Base. They look around and decide to move elsewhere or live elsewhere,” he says.
The millage increase has received the backing of several local civic and business groups, including the Jacksonville Rotary Club, Sertoma Club, Chamber of Commerce, City Council, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the North Pulaski Board of Realtors.
A mill is one-tenth of one cent. In Arkansas, 20 percent of a property's assessed value is taxable. Under a 7.6 mill hike, someone owning property with an assessed value of 50,000 dollars would be obligated to pay an additional 76 dollars a year because 10,000 of the 50,000 dollars would be taxable. Residents of the Jacksonville district already pay 40.7 mills in property taxes per year.
While there is no organized opposition to the millage increase, citizen letters to local newspapers indicate some isolated opposition.
“Opponents feel the school board and Education Corps leaders just want the little people to pay more taxes so they can continue to make money but not give back to the community, which has led to the current economic disaster for the city,” wrote one Jacksonville resident, Keith Weber, to The Arkansas Times and The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Ninety-five percent of area voters approved breaking away from the Pulaski County Special School District to form their own district in September 2014. In September 2015 voters elected the first seven members of the Jacksonville school board.
The Jacksonville district will formalize its detachment from the PCSSD on July 1. Gray says his district has been making hires of principals and assistant principals in recent weeks. The district is developing a Gifted and Talented curriculum and culinary arts curriculum, he says.
Education Corps, which has been leading the millage push, is registered as a Legislative Question Committee with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. It was founded with the original intent of campaigning for and publicizing the effort to have Jacksonville break away from the PCSSD.
According to financial disclosures with the Ethics Commission, in the most recent 2015-16 campaign to support passage of the millage, Education Corps received 1,180 dollars in individual contributions and a 16,000 dollar contribution from the Jacksonville Education Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The 16,000 dollar contribution was used to pay Turtle Target, a market research firm based in Conway, for polling, consulting and voter modeling.
Disclaimer: A previous version of this article incorrectly illustrated the amount a property owner would be taxed as a result of a millage increase. Some grammatical and syntactical errors were also corrected.