Proponents of new Eureka Springs high school make final push as vote nears

Friday, February 5, 2010 ~ Updated 1:40 PM
Middle school student Manon Gros was one of two students who spoke to the crowd at the final "town hall" meeting on the new high school Monday night. She and student Laura Winters appealed for a new high school at the Lake Lucerne Road campus. Looking on were Eureka Springs School Superintendent Wayne Carr and school board president Rusty Windle. Kathryn Lucariello / CCN

EUREKA SPRINGS -- In a final town hall meeting Monday night, Eureka Springs Superintendent Wayne Carr, along with architectural and financial consultants and students, answered questions about the proposed new high school and the upcoming millage vote to support it.

High school student Laura Winters and middle school student Manon Gros spoke in support of the new school. Winters said she had conducted a survey of students about the project before the board started making plans in earnest last year.

"Out of 188 students, 184 support building the new school behind the middle school," she said.

Both students said having to shuttle back and forth between campuses was a waste of gas and time.

Carr said the district could save $25,0000 a year in fuel and payroll costs if it did not have to bus students and staff back and forth.

"Not having to bus kids back and forth all day is a big thing," said School Board President Rusty Windle. "Ten minutes each way, you lose half a period busing."

Windle and others addressed questions that have come from the community at large in meeting and on local internet bulletin boards.

One misconception, he said, is that this is a new project that just came up and was sprung on the public with no input.

"We've had board meetings, public meetings. We have looked at what to do with the high school facility for the last two to three years. Our original plan was to renovate the old high school, but as we got the architects involved, it became obvious it wouldn't work.

"The main high school building would cost $5 to $6 million to renovate and we still would have had an old building 50 to 60 years old, worn out and inefficient. We started looking at what else we could do."

He said the "plus" for building on the existing site is that "everyone knows where it is," but there is not enough parking for ballgames and tournaments, which could bring revenue in to the city.

Windle also addressed the question of why do this now, in a bad economy. He said a bad economy is the best time to do it because construction costs and interest rates are lower.

"The numbers we first looked at, it would cost $15 million; now it's $10.6 million. Instead of a 4-mill increase, it's a little under 2."

Windle appealed to the emotional aspect of educating students.

"I have a kid in school who won't get to use it, and one that will use it for a year or two, and then I won't have kids in the school, but I'm still willing to pay for it. Other people paid for my kids; I'll pay for someone else's -- it's the circle of life."

He said the board had been asked if they have a "Plan B" if the millage vote fails so a new school can be built at the Lake Lucerne Road property.

"This is the optimal plan. We've spent a lot of time looking at this, and this was the best plan we could come up with. We didn't want to spend a lot of taxpayer money looking at other plans. If the millage vote fails, I won't be mad at the voters. We will abide by what the community wants."

If the millage vote fails, the district could come back a year from now and again ask for a millage increase vote, said Jack Murphy, new high school promotion committee co-chair.

Costs could be higher then.

Dan Lovelady, with First Security Beardsley Public Finance, the school's financial advisors, addressed financing questions.

He said that while the school district's real estate wealth prevents it from getting more than $50,000 in state funds, its wealth also works for it because tax revenue from the existing millage, plus only a 1.98 tax mills increase, is a lot less than other school districts might have to pay who are not as wealthy.

"We analyzed the existing debt you had, through equity and existing bond issues, just like refinancing a home," he said. "We looked at everything you can generate through that process to avoid new millage.

"To get $10.6 million for the school, we had to have $13.3 million to pay off the 2003 bond issue and then fund $10.6 million for the new school.

"Now is a good time. School bonds have traditionally held their value. Buyers want them. School bond issues are usually on the market in September, so interest rates are competitive because there are a lot of buyers. In spring, there are probably only two to three bond issues in Arkansas. It's supply and demand. It's not worth it to wait -- interest could go back up and costs could go back up."

He said the Midland School District was looking at a 27-mill increase to build their new school because they were not wealthy.

"You're getting it for 1.98 mills because of the wealth you already have."

He said some in the community are confused about millage versus bonds. The difference in Arkansas between a school district and a city or county tax increase is that a city or county bond issue, such as for a new airport, may have income from the new facility to pay for bonds back. School districts have no such income and so must rely on taxes.

Concerns about the location were also addressed, from the sewage plan to road widening and danger of Lake Lucerne Road.

School resource police officer Brian Young said that while the police cannot prevent anyone from driving on a public road, the school can and does manage traffic when school lets out.

A local resident said she is concerned about the one-lane historic bridges and the dangerous narrow, twisting roads in that area.

"The complaints we are getting is that kids are speeding. We can sit down there with radar and catch them," Young said.

A member of the audience said he lives on Lake Lucerne Road and increased traffic is "not a problem, even if 25 to 30 more cars drive down there."

Carr said there have been meetings with city officials on road widening, and the city is open to cooperating with the school district to widen the road as needed.

But there is no agreement in writing for the city to do so. Carr said there is contingency money built into the budget to help with that project, if it is legal to use the funds that way.

Andrew Mincks of Kinco Constructors, the contractor chosen for the project, said there is a misconception that road widening would cost "millions."

"I have talked to friends in road construction," he said. "We're probably talking about $250,000, not millions of dollars, to widen that road."

Also, the school property entrance is at least 500 feet from the first one-lane bridge, Carr said.

There is also money in the budget, he said, to install a lift pump and sewer lines to connect to the middle school's lines to carry sewage up to the city lines. Or the new high school could have its own small sewage treatment plant.

"We have looked at onsite systems, a small sewage treatment plant or a lift station," said Project Manager Charlie Morrison of Morrison Architecture. "Once the project goes through, it would all be within the budget."

With regard to questions about whether project costs would go up, the Morrisons said the plans would be drawn to stay within budget, making adjustments as necessary.

Some questioned why the gym is so large and art and music rooms have less space devoted to them.

Laura said for a school the size of Eureka's, the state requires a 75,000 square foot minimum with six classrooms, but her plan includes eight classrooms for basic instruction.

She said the gym will probably cost a lot less than academic spaces, around $80 per square foot as opposed to the average overall $118 per square foot because it is "a large metal building." Other spaces are more technical and detailed. She said she sat down with staff and teachers to ask what they needed.

The state requires one science lab; this plan has two.

She said she added square footage for art and music based on what the teachers said they needed.

Mincks said he got a lot of help from contractors to project costs for various parts of the project rather than just a general square footage.

If the millage passes, he said he can get an earthwork price early on before architectural drawings are done. That price can be locked in. Once drawings are done, which should take about five or six months, Kinco can "lock in" a GMC -- "Guaranteed Maximum Price" from contractors that will not change during the two-year construction process.

"Everything will be competitively bid," he said. When completed, the project will be "turnkey," including tables and chairs.

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