The Watson Chapel School District Board of Directors approved district superintendent Danny Hazelwood’s request to again ask voters to approve a millage increase.
The millage proposal will be the second in the past year for the district. The previous request was voted down in a special election in April 2012. The district has not had a millage increase since 1974.
In a two-part vote at the board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night, directors first approved a proposed budget of expenditures for fiscal year 2014-2015, required as part of the leadup to a special election.
The board next approved a resolution calling for a special election May 14.
Under the banner ‘Our Kids, Our Future, Our Watson Chapel,’ Hazelwood said that the only viable option to prevent a state takeover of the district is the construction of a new kindergarten-first grade building to replace the current Edgewood Elementary campus.
Funds are to be generated by a proposed 2.3-mill increase to the existing 31.8 millage rate that voters will be asked to approve in a May 14 special election.
“The existing millage rate of 31.8 is less than every district around us,” Hazelwood said. “If the increase is passed the new rate at 34.1 mills will still be the lowest rate in the area. The entire project is estimated at $10 million with the state committing $6 million of that amount which is 76 percent of the construction cost and 60 percent of the total project cost.”
Hazelwood said the building itself will cost $8 million to construct while the additional $2 million will go to the purchase of land to build on and equipment to furnish the school with.
“In my opinion we are at a crossroads related to the age of our facilities and the future of this district,” Hazelwood said. “The first step is the construction of a new K-1 building to replace the existing Edgewood Elementary campus. The existing building is 52 years old. The state has already told us that the building needs to be replaced. The cost of maintaining a facility this old continues to rise.”
Hazelwood said the existing floorplan at Edgewood is outdated from a safety standpoint because each individual classroom opens to the outside.
“In this day and age it is simply not safe for children to be that exposed,” Hazelwood said. “We need a school that keeps all classroom doors centered on an inside corridor.
“In short we are under a state mandate to get something done, so we’ve got to do something,” Hazelwood said. “If we don’t the state will look even more at creating a unified Jefferson County school district. [Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Tom] Kimbrell has been talking about this. I think we only have one choice and that is the construction of a new K-1 building.”
Hazelwood said the new building as envisioned will meet and exceed the requirements of the state board of education.
“It will become a model to our district,” Hazelwood said. “I have assembled a qualified team of people to assist us in this task.”
Hazelwood said hard lessons were learned in the district’s unsuccessful bid to increase the millage rate by five mills last year.
“The 2.3-mill increase is less than half of what we asked before,” Hazelwood said. “In addition there will be no leap-frogging of classes from one building to another as we had planned last year when we hoped to build a new fifth- and sixth-grade building. We will just be moving two classes into a new building.”
Hazelwood said part of the district’s strategy to get the millage increase passed is making sure that the plan is communicated clearly to the public.
The new school
Dave Sadler, an architect with Nelson Architectural Group in Pine Bluff, made a presentation that provided an overview of project parameters.
“There are two wooded tracts of land totalling 15 acres that border the current Edgewood campus and this is where we are planning to locate the new building,” Sadler said. “Once the project is complete the campus will have a total of 23 acres. Plans are to leave the tract closest to some railroad tracks mostly wooded to act as an acoustic buffer and absorb some of the sound from passing trains.”
Sadler said part of the project cost will go toward making infrastructure improvements to Apple Street, which runs in front of the property.
“We will widen Apple and fill in the deep ditch that runs along it,” Sadler said. “There is a possibility that the city may be able to help with this.”
Richard Taylor, another project architect with Nelson, gave a detailed presentation of the interior of the new building.
“The school will include 12 kindergarten classrooms on the left side of the building,” Taylor said. “They are required to have self-contained toilets. There will be nine first-grade classrooms located on the right side of the building.”
Van Tilbury, president and CEO of East Harding Construction in Little Rock, advised the board of the role his company will play as construction manager.
“The district will have a relationship with us as the manager of the project and we will have a relationship with all of the subcontractors who perform the work,” Tilbury said.
In other business the board voted unanimously to approve a list of personnel recommendations made by Hazelwood, including one-year employment contract extensions for administrators including Jennifer Barbaree; Cornovious Branch; Schaun Brown; Natasha Dunn; Taryn Echols; Jeff Glover; John Hayden; Ronnie Johnson; Rosie Martin; Brenda Melton; Ronette Metcalf; Anne Shaw; Tim Taylor; William Tietz; Henry Webb; Sandra Williams; and Leydel Willis.
The board approved the hiring of Tonya Hollien as a cafeteria worker; Yaphet Hilton, Tina Louise Thomas, Krristen Crosby, and Tiffani Lunsford as substitute cafeteria workers.