Opponents of Little Rock school tax say construction possible without new taxes | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Opponents of Little Rock school tax say construction possible without new taxes

Posted By on Sun, Apr 30, 2017 at 9:42 AM

JOHNNY KEY: His promises don't impress No Taxation Without Representation, which posted this image of the state education commissioner, who controls  the school district, on its Facebook page.
  • JOHNNY KEY: His promises don't impress No Taxation Without Representation, which posted this image of the state education commissioner, who controls the school district, on its Facebook page.
Citizens Against Taxation Without Representation, which is opposing the vote May 9 to extend 12.4 mills of Little Rock School District property tax for 14 years (at a cumulative cost of at least $600 million and almost certainly much more), has called a news conference Monday to counter a key argument by tax supporters.

The group will talk about the cumulative cost of the millage extension, including almost $8 million in new debt service annually in a school district already in difficult financial shape. It also will outline an option to use the state's last desegregation payment of $37 million and surplus from the existing construction tax millage (about $26 million a year) to improve school facilities without the added tax in the May 9 vote. This means, undoubtedly, other budget reductions from capture of construction millage surplus going to operations. But they are going to be required in any case on account of the drain of students from the district by the charter schools that the district's boss, state Education Commissioner Johnny Key, is determined to encourage.

Greg Adams, the former School Board president and a sincere and dedicated guy, wrote in the Democrat-Gazette today in support of the tax, in part because he said he believes in Johnny Key's good intentions. The problem is that Key's words don't match with his record. He killed state Board of Education member Jay Barth's effort to get a date commitment to a return of the district to local control. He's repeatedly indicated no interest in flexibility on that return, not even if the district has only a single school (say Hall High with its enormous contingent of non-native English speakers) below the arbitrary test cutoff score for proficiency. He's a vigorous supporter of every sort of program to drain students from the schools — charter, voucher, home school. During the legislative session he fought the most minor efforts to bring more fairness in treatment of public schools and charter schools operated by private companies. He supported (reportedly helped write) the legislation to put the thumb on the scales in favor of private operators who want to acquire vacant school buildings for charter schools. He refused to support legislation that would have provided some small assurance that charter schools truly operate fair lotteries for admission and not a system in favor of students with more economic advantages.

The man Key fired as Little Rock superintendent, Baker Kurrus, explained this in a remarkable essay we posted Friday about why he plans for the first time to oppose a Little Rock school tax proposal.

Although the state has not issued a plan, the state has charted a course and taken action. On average, the state has authorized about 700 charter seats per year in Pulaski County since 2004. There is no reason to believe that this trend will change. Almost all charter applications are approved, and even poor performing charter schools are allowed to continue in operations. These are the simple facts, but none of this has been discussed in public. The charter proponents who are pushing this millage extension have not indicated that they will be backing off their push for more charter schools and charter school districts in Pulaski County.

...The State of Arkansas, through the State Board of Education, took control of LRSD in order to assist the district. Rather than assisting LRSD, the state has made the mission of LRSD much more difficult. The state has taken actions to favor charter magnet schools which enroll high achieving students. The state has made these policy decisions without any apparent regard to its fiduciary responsibility to LRSD and its remaining students. Poor, disabled, and non-English speaking students are being isolated in the name of competition and choice. The price to be paid in the future is immense. This may or may not be illegal or unconstitutional, but it is damaging to our community and LRSD. These facts are not in dispute. 

Another thing you'll find mentioned in Kurrus' essay: He was at work building that new high school in Southwest Little Rock that was made the crocodile-tear-wringing centerpiece of the Democrat-Gazette's pre-election roundup on the election. Kurrus acknowledges the need and he had a plan that didn't include a bond election, when Key fired him for opposing charter school expansions. Kurrus writes:

Rather than borrow now, the better approach would be to make a realistic assessment of the size and character of LRSD over the course of the same thirty years of the proposed bond repayment. LRSD can borrow, if necessary, after the budget is balanced and enrollment is stabilized. In the shorter term, the same revenues which would be spent on annual interest and fees could be spent on facilities on a pay as you go basis. This amount, plus the capital money LRSD already has or will receive, should be enough to build the southwest Little Rock high school. 
In short, increasing debt for an already financially pinched school district makes no sense in the context of the game plan of Johnny Key (who has a conflict of interest with LRSD if there ever was one). Writes Kurrus:

If these trends continue, LRSD will be smaller and poorer, and have a higher percentage of students with special needs and a higher percentage of students who do not speak English. This needs to be discussed in the context of a long-term financial plan to meet these future needs. Thus far, there has been no mention of this with regard to this borrowing. 
Early voting begins at 8 a.m. Tuesday and will be held each weekday before the election at the Election Commission at Markham and Broadway and at these locations:

Sue Cowan Williams Library, 1800 S. Chester
Southwest Community Center, 6401 Baseline Rd
Second Presbyterian Youth Center, 600 Pleasant Valley Dr
Community Center, 4521 John Barrow Rd.

ONE OTHER NOTE: I did finally get after several weeks of asking a limited breakdown of expenses associated with the $160 million in bonds that would be sold to refinance existing debt and provide upfront construction money.

It'll be worth roughly $4 million to the investment firm that lands the underwriting (a decision that will be Key's to make); more than $140,000 to bond lawyers, and about $300,000 in bond advisor fees to Stephens Inc. and the RSI Group. A Stephens employee, you might remember, quashed an original plan to have an early polling place in the John Barrow Addition and persuaded the Arkansas Arts Center to get that site reopened for downtown voters on election day rather than voters having to go to a planned alternate site at the Dunbar Community Center. An outcry over closure of the Barrow location led to a review of the matter and opening of four early voting sites.

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