Millage increase needed to update Marked Tree Schools

Monday, August 21, 2017
Pictured is a rendering of the new main entrance of Marked Tree High School planned if the millage increase passes Sept. 19.

Marked Tree School District is asking for a millage increase during the annual school election on Sept. 19. They are asking for a six mill increase, which would raise them from 33.5 mills--the 32nd lowest in the state--to 39.5 mills. Out of the 25 schools in Northeast Arkansas, this would move Marked Tree from 22nd to 11th.

Superintendent Matt Wright said the request for a millage increase came down to three things: safety, efficiency, and storm shelters. "We are in major need of a facilities upgrade," Wright said. Some of the wings at the Elementary and High School are 60-70 years old. The millage increase, along with money the state has agreed to contribute, would go toward demolishing, construction, remodeling, and furnishing several sections of the schools.

At the high school, the plan is to demolish the 1947 wing, which includes the old auditorium, seven classrooms, the band room, the library, and principal's office. A new band room, choir room, new classrooms, and a physical education area will be built along with a hardened structure which will act as a storm shelter for the community. The cafeteria and superintendent's office will be remodeled, but will not be new structures.

Wright said one of the key things about remodeling the high school was the safety and security of the students. "We have a large number of doors at the high school," Wright said. "There are 14 entrances. If you enter at the superintendent's office, you have to walk halfway down the hallway to get to the principal's office." Under the new plan, there will be one central entrance, visitors will be buzzed in, and there will be a designated drop-off area for students. There will also be added parking, which he said would get parked cars out of the street, as that part of the building will be moved back 30 feet to connect with the agri building. Having the whole school connected will also mean the students will not have to leave the building to transition between classes, another safety concern. "Under the new floor plan, kids will have zero outside transitions and four doors that can access the building but one main entrance that will go directly into the principal's office," Wright said.

The plan for the elementary school is to also eliminate outside transitions between the cafeteria and the gym. The entire 3-6 wing will be demolished and rebuilt. It will connect to the gym, and the cafeteria will be remodeled. There will also be a storm shelter at the elementary campus.

The money generated will also be spent on making the classrooms more energy efficient by adding LED lighting, improving the HVAC system--Wright said the high school especially is cold and drafty in the winter--and putting in heavy and secure doors, windows, and other items intended to save money.

"We need classrooms built for the 21st century," Wright said. Every student and teacher has a computer, but the current classrooms only have one electrical outlet each, so updating the schools technologically is also a concern.

Wright said the state did an inspection of both campuses and said the renovation needs to be done. The total amount the project is estimated at is $10 million, but the state has agreed to fund around $4.3 million. The millage increase would fund $4.2 million, and an extension of existing debt millage will generate the rest.

Wright said that while there is never a right time to ask for a millage increase, they had to weigh the pros and cons, and the money from the state was a major part of the decision to ask for the increase. If the millage doesn't pass, the money the state has offered will go to other districts, and more importantly, there will be less money to go around in the future. "Another factor that creates a sense of urgency is that Governor Hutchinson stated that the current school facilities budget wasn't feasible moving forward," Wright said. "How does that impact our school? It doesn't, if we pass the millage. If we don't pass the millage and have to ask for money in the future, there will be as many or more schools competing for a smaller amount of money."

Over the last 25 years, the district has asked to extend debt to provide funds to build an auditorium in 1994 and asked for a three mill increase in 2003, which was required by the state to meet the minimum of the 25 maintenance and operation mills--had that not passed, the school's bonds would have been taxable.

Wright also said they had initially explored building completely new buildings for both campuses, but with the district's pattern of declining enrollment, they would have had to either significantly decrease square footage or have the community pay 100 percent. "That would have been fiscally irresponsible of us," Wright said. "I think this (six mills) is the most reasonable thing we could have asked for. Six is what we need to have the funds to ensure our school's facility for the next 30-40 years." Wright also said the current plan was the sixth or seventh revision and that they have tried to get the cost down as low as they can.

If the millage increase does not pass, the school's dollars won't go as far. "As with any structure built in 1947, we spend more money than normal on heating and cooling, repairs, plumbing issues, etc. Every dollar we spend on facilities is money that could be spent in other areas," Wright said. "Not getting to take advantage of $4.3 million (from the state) would be devestating. Who knows when this chance comes back around?"

As far as what the millage increase would mean for property owners: a property appraised at $25,000 would come to a difference of $2.50 a month, $50,000 would be $5 a month, $100,000 would be $10 a month, and $150,000 would be $15 a month. Wright said someone with the highest appraised property value of $150,000 would only end up paying an extra 50 cents a day. "I just hope people understand that we aren't asking for what we want. Rather, we are asking for what our kids need," Wright said. "Our kids need--our kids deserve--safe and secure buildings. Our kids deserve to have school facilities that help give them the same opportunities that kids in other schools receive. Most of us can make that difference for our kids, for our community, by sacrificing less than a soda a day."

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