Voters defeat Little Rock School District tax extension | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Voters defeat Little Rock School District tax extension

Posted By on Tue, May 9, 2017 at 7:39 PM

WINNERS: This side of the question
  • WINNERS: This side of the question

UPDATE: Voters tonight overwhelmingly defeated the Little Rock School District tax proposal to refinance existing bonds and extend 12.4 tax mills of property tax for 14 years, at a cost of what could approach $1 billion.

The final tally, for 68 of 68 polling places:

FOR  ......   3,938  35.46%

AGAINST   7,067  64.54%

The turnout of more than 11,000 voters was the biggest since a school tax election 17 years ago.

Quick note: The precinct results are up. Two bellwether pro-tax liberal voting places at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church defeated the tax, a striking outcome and signal of the unhappiness about recent events in the district. It did carry at two precincts at Fire Station 10 in the Heights, the highest income neighborhood in the district and seat of the financial strength behind the campaign. It got clobbered in black precincts — a 91 percent NO vote at the Dunbar Recreation Center, for example. The 90 percent no votes were frequent in black voting precincts, including one at Franklin Elementary, slated for closure in the recent budget cuts.

Supporters conceded defeat before the final vote was announced. Superintendent Michael Poore said he was saddened by the outcome. He said some work will be delayed. But he said the district will continue to improve. "And I know there's a lot more than just facilities that make a difference for kids.". Fox 16 has Poore on video.

The refinancing would have allowed the district to sell up to $200 million in bonds, with officials promising to spend the money on a range of school facility improvements, as well as  building a new high school in Southwest Little Rock.  All have said the high school would be built with existing funds, regardless of the tax  vote.

Proponents, primarily from the business establishment, outspent opponents 10-1 with a message that the vote was "for the kids." Opponents, energized by the state takeover and removal of the majority black school board, called it a vote for taxation without representation. They and former Superintendent Baker Kurrus questioned long-term financial planning for the district, which faces a continuing loss of students to charter schools. State Education Commissioner Johnny Key has been an advocate of continued charter school expansion despite the drain it causes on Little Rock students, particularly students, both black and white, who are already succeeding in Little Rock district schools. Kurrus, a popular leader, was fired by Key for opposing charter school expansion. He wrote a widely disseminated essay against the proposal.

The 12.4 mills produces more than $41 million a year now, but a refinancing would use only $11 million of that money for bond repayment. The district, through a little-known quirk in state law, gets to keep the overage for operations and that surplus has been growing at a rate of 3 percent of year as property values in the district rise. Should that rate continue, the millage could be producing more than $60 million a year in 16 years. A vote for the tax would thus have allowed collection of that money for 14 more years, with a sum approaching $1 billion in tax collections with continuation of the growth rate.

The district has many building needs, but Superintendent Michael Poore said it is oversupplied with school seats and he has recently closed two schools. A law passed this legislative session — and supported by Johnny Key — allows vacant school buildings to be sold on favorable terms to charter schools. A couple of major charter school expansions — at eStem and LISA Academy — are already in the works. The state Board of Education soon will consider applications for four more charter schools that want to serve 2,000 more children in the Little Rock School District. Loss of those students could mean millions of reductions in state aid and still more empty classrooms.

The district was taken over by the state two years ago because six of 48 schools fell short of benchmarks on standardized tests. Only three schools are in academic distress now, but Key has refused to suggest the district will be granted any flexibility from 100 percent compliance in being removed from academic distress and allowed to elect a School Board again. A proposal to give the district a timeline toward local control failed before the state Board recently because of resistance from the Hutchinson administration, to whom Key answers.

Superintendent Poore has tried to avoid the fight over loss of students to charter schools, saying that improving the schools is a way for the district to compete and retain students. Little Rock has steadily lost white and higher income students over the last decades to suburbs, private schools and charter schools as it has grown to be more than 70 percent black and poor in enrollment.

In addition to providing a stimulus to the construction industry, the new bond issue would have generated some $4 million in fees for securities dealers and bond lawyers.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson joined those supporting the tax, but he did so in a city school district that heavily opposed him in his gubernatorial election.

ELECTION NIGHT THOUGHT: It is possible that some of this vote has little to do with the campaign for or against it, but with embedded negativity against the Little Rock School District, long abandoned by city officials, many residents and others. THAT would not be a good thing. There can be another millage extension vote in November and the state could send positive signals to those who opposed this tax on specific philosophical reasons. But that won't effect voters who have no feelings about district except negative ones. But the racial voting pattern is too clear and the disaffection in liberal neighborhoods with state control is also clear. To date, the state has shown now willingness to listen to those elements in the district. Maybe now they will. Unless they just don't care.

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