Columns » Max Brantley

North Little Rock's miracle

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North Little Rock, a blue-collar railroad town that has seen little growth the last 20 years, put a big wager down on its future last week.

Its voters gave 57 percent approval to a huge property tax increase to rebuild the entire city school system. The 7.4-mill increase means a whopping 18 percent increase in taxes on every car, house and commercial property.

The tax increase will provide a significant portion of a quarter-of-BILLION dollar plan to rebuild the entire city school system. No building will be untouched. Twenty-one campuses will be consolidated into 13. The savings from that consolidation — it will mean smaller staffs for fewer classrooms — along with $66 million from the state will help pay for the plan.

Voter approval followed by only three months the defeat by North Little Rock voters of a sales tax increase, a proposal meant not only to support basic services but also to spend supposedly transformative sums on community development.

The school district is smaller than the city as a whole, but the school tax drew about 1,400 more voters than the city sales tax election. The turnout was high for a special election, about 20 percent of registered voters and as high as 35 to 40 percent in the higher income neighborhoods north of Interstate 40 where school tax support was strongest. The school tax failed in only two precincts, working class Rose City and Levy.

School Board member Scott Miller offered an analysis on his Facebook page. He notes rightly that North Little Rock sometimes benefits from falling off media radar. Grassroots still matter and, today, social media grassroots matter a lot. Miller said it's akin to the Twitter-fueled Arab spring:

"Independent voices and messages are being heard on a wide scale through Facebook and other social media. Mayor Hays' sales tax largely lost because of a wicked undercurrent of negativity on Facebook. The opposite was true of the school millage tax, where the social media content was overwhelmingly positive. And this lack of control is growing as the wave of people who didn't grow up with computers and technology exits the scene."

Miller hopes the new age will be reflected in a school district rebuilt in more ways than buildings. He can even see a school "without lockers" where students are no longer beasts of burden to stacks of books, but wired into tablets.

The North Little Rock investment is courageously optimistic in face of tough demographic odds. School shortcomings often track race and poverty. North Little Rock schools are majority black and a majority of students are in poverty, as defined by standards for participation in federal nutrition programs.

North Little Rock also is in a tenuous situation as it works itself out of the federal desegregation case. Many think the state is looking longingly at North Little Rock and the Little Rock district as merger partners to rid the state of its trusteeship of the foundering Pulaski County School District, which surrounds the county's urban core. North Little Rock was uniquely fixed by its relatively compact size and a significant property tax base to attempt this bold restructuring. The strong sense of community that drove the tax increase wouldn't be helped by a broad expansion into neighboring territory.

The enthusiasm for city schools — carefully nurtured by a year-long campaign and undeterred by school leaders' refusal to cave to city leaders' pressure to share school financial bounty for downtown redevelopment — is all the more remarkable given the circumstances.

Let's hope the enthusiasm is rewarded with results. Building starts next year.

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