Veteran school reporter Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
ELECTION DECREE: Johnny Key sets Little Rock tax vote for March 14.
got the scoop that the ruler of the Little Rock School District,
state Education Commissioner Johnny Key,
has decreed a March 14 election on refinancing the district's bonded debt.
The issue won't be an increase in the millage rate, but it will be an enormous tax increase all the same — an additional 14 years of payment of 12.4 mills of property taxes, currently producing about $25 million a year. Multiply that times 14 and you're talking a commitment of at least $350 million. (I have screwed this figure up several times. I hope I have it right now.) The amount will actually be much greater if Little Rock property assessments continue to rise over that period. We can hope. The school district does. (The school district boundaries, however, are not the same as those of the city and it contains a disproportionate amount of decaying territory. That and decaying schools sometimes depress property values.)
A big part of the new taxes will go to a new high school in Southwest Little Rock. But the details are not yet specific on the rest of the spending. They must be. And voters also must know long before March 14 what schools Superintendent Michael Poore
plans to close and how existing facilities will be re-used. I'd like a commitment from Key that closed schools won't be turned over to charter school management corporations, for one.
The refinancing also will take away excess money that the debt millage now produces for operating expenses. More explanations, specific ones, are needed on the district's plan for coping with that, along with loss of desegregation money and money lost by students who leave the district, a number surely to grow with the vast expansion of charter schools Key has endorsed in the district.
It's interesting that the election is being hurried to a special date in March. In the past, Key has bowed to the Walton Foundation-funded school lobbying efforts and expressed a preference that school elections be held along with regular elections when more people vote. There is no regular election this year, of course, so there is that handy excuse. But these construction needs have been no secret. Key could have pushed this onto the general election ballot last year.
Resistance to the tax vote is likely from at least some in the significant number unhappy about the state takeover of the Little Rock School District. That group has been successful in organizing in past school elections. It's a tough call, as I mentioned in a recent column.
The district has indisputable needs. But long-time supporters of the school district might prefer that their elected representatives were making decision on use of the money not Johnny Key. He's been an active player in the Walton-backed movement that has worked to eliminate a conventional public school district answerable to voters in Little Rock.