Voters in Arkansas's largest school district will get to decide Tuesday on a proposal to extend 12.4 mills of property tax for 14 years beyond the current expiration date in the year 2033. The issue has divided Little Rock's leaders. On one side: those who say the resulting $160 million in refinanced bond money would help bring the LRSD's facilities up to date. On the other: those who say the plan lacks fiscal responsibility at a time of budget cuts during the absence of a locally elected school board in the state-controlled district.
Anika Whitfield of the group Citizens Against Taxation Without Representation spoke to KUAR’s Chris Hickey about why she opposes the plan. On Monday, we heard from LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore, who was instrumental in shaping it.
Whitfield: The people don’t really have a voice in what’s going to happen with those dollars. We have an appointed commissioner of education who has also been appointed to be our current board director for the Little Rock School District since our district was taken over by the state January 28, 2015. And all of our elected officials were deposed from their positions. And so we have seen the Little Rock School District and Commissioner [Johnny] Key, through a process over the last six months of proposing to close and now finalizing their deal to close four schools in the Little Rock School District. And that was after many parents and community members came up and asked specifically to keep those schools open and to work with them with a financial plan forward, so that we could keep all of our schools open and encourage more students in the district. So we have very little faith that our current leadership really cares about what the people want and we have very little trust that they will do what is on paper that they will say they will do because there is no legally binding contract. If you look at the millage tax writing on the ballot, all of those things are suggestions or proposals. Nothing is a firm or, again, legally binding contract to say those things will actually be done.
Hickey: Some proponents of the millage tax extension have argued that it doesn’t represent an additional tax burden or tax increase for the citizens of Little Rock. It’s extending a tax that’s already there. Since that’s the case, what’s the economic argument against it?
Whitfield: Well, part of the economic argument is though it’s not a new and it is an extension, which is like if someone were to refinance their home, over the length of time you will actually be paying much more on that home because you’re refinancing it. The same is true with this tax. The Little Rock School District and the Commissioner is asking the public to extend the tax by borrowing $160 million. And if we do the math and look at the interest rates and all of those associated fees with borrowing this type of money, ultimately we will be playing out by the year 2047—we will have paid out close to half a billion dollars with only 160 million to show for it in infrastructure changes—which by the way, do not impact student outcomes or academic successes.
Hickey: At the same time, proponents of this millage, many of whom opposed the state takeover of the district, also argue the district’s in dire need of improving the facilities, especially campuses south of Interstate 630. And there was a promise for a new southwest Little Rock high school that would be funded in part by this. Why oppose the millage when voting it down could mean kids simply would not get to attend schools without acceptable facilities?
Whitfield: Well, I think that that’s a false narrative quite honestly. The Little Rock School District has money within the capital funds to do most of the improvements that they’re proposing. Now, there are a few of those proposals that they’re making that might require excessive trimming, perhaps from the current budget that we have, or ways to raise funds other than extending a tax in order to have a long range plan. It just doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. We need to sit down together at a table, a discussion, and look at a real long term plan that would include multiple options and multiple ways of really accessing community support and also elected officials’ support to ensure that the students of the Little Rock School District are not just dressed over with something that looks good, but that they actually have a sustainable school system that will not only attract other students but will benefit the students that are currently there.