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.
LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore spoke to KUAR's Chris Hickey about why he thinks the plan is needed for buildings in the district, which still carries the state label of "academic distress."
The following is an excerpt of an interview that was edited for length. Tune into Morning Edition at 6:45am & 8:45am Tuesday to hear an opposing view on the Little Rock school millage vote.
Poore: What we’re really trying to do is much like what a homeowner does of extending our debt and using what we have as a bond and refinancing it, much like you would with a second loan on your home. We’ve tried to be very cautious in all of our projections and our financing numbers. We’ve tried to make sure that we’ve made the appropriate reductions in staff so that we’re going to be healthy on our operations side. We’ve been very collaborative with a variety of different people, from people that deal with financing of school bonds to our own staff and also trying to make sure business leaders look at this to say, ‘does this make sense?’
Hickey: Could you describe what the money would be going to fund? I know that you have plans to improve facilities in the district.
Poore: Yeah you know this is what’s exciting. It actually touches every single campus. A large part of our resources towards this goes towards schools that are south of the interstate that divides our community and it goes to campuses that have sorely needed attention. These are projects that a study—the Fanning Howey study—produced $340 million worth of needs [in 2014]. And now we’re trying to tackle it, at least a portion of it. And this is nothing that’s extravagant. This is about roofs, this is about air conditioning units, this is about windows. It’s about trying to make sure we have air handler units that work. These are things that have been on the docket so to speak, in need in this district for years and years and years. And of course one of the other big parts of this is to go build a high school in the southwest [of Little Rock] and that’s a promise that was delivered to this community and I’ve said since the get-go that it’s my intent to go build that high school and have [J.A. Fair] and McClellan combined and certainly we’re going to do that.
Hickey: You’re predecessor, former superintendent Baker Kurrus, recently wrote an essay where he starts out by saying he’s never voted against a school tax in his life but he’ll be voting against this tax. And he basically goes on to say it’s imprudent for the district to take on additional debt at a time when it faces great uncertainty and the LRSD should instead focus on balancing its budget and stabilizing enrollment. What do you say to that?
Poore: Well first off, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Baker and he did several things that I think have helped this district. He reduced the budget by about $30 million. We’ve, since then, reduced the budget by another $11 million. So we have got our operational side in place. The other thing I would share is that I think that our form of collaboration of multiple entities looking at our package and trying to create the best avenue to move forward is really sound. Baker took a stance, but he also took a stance in 2015. In 2015, he presented to the civic advisory group, a package that’s very similar to ours. Bottom line, we feel like we have a package that will allow our district to move forward and really make a difference for kids.
Hickey: Another of the primary arguments made by opponents of this millage extension is that despite the good intentions for wanting to improve facilities, the district would be making a major financial commitment without being held accountable to a locally elected school board and that this is further evidence that there is little interest in giving the district back over to local control. What’s your response to that?
Poore: Well, I think there’s been numerous districts that have gone through this ‘distressed’ tag for both educational reasons, fiscal reasons and facility reasons. Some of them have passed things that are a part of moving their district forward and done different things to improve facilities. Little Rock really needs to do the same thing. The community as a whole gets to weigh in on this issue and say that they believe in it or don’t believe in it. And the final thing is that I will promise the community that we’ll have a commission or a task force to come in and hear how these projects are being executed and help report that back out to the community and that’s something that I can guarantee we will do if we’re successful.
Hickey: School District Superintendent Mike Poore, thank you for joining me again.
Poore: I wish the listeners well and remember that on Tuesday, your voting spots are the same voting spots that you can go to on any election for a state or national election, that’s where your polling location will be.