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Sprawling and brawling

In Fayetteville, ‘Disagreement gets more heated.’

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INSPECTION: UA Athletic Director Jeff Long, Vice Chancellor Don Pederson and Trustee John Tyson tour FHS property.
  • INSPECTION: UA Athletic Director Jeff Long, Vice Chancellor Don Pederson and Trustee John Tyson tour FHS property.

A proposal to sell the high school would be controversial in just about any town. In Fayetteville, with a highly educated and highly opinionated population, it's even more so.

“Disagreement gets more heated here,” Fayetteville School Superintendent Bobby C. New says, and he should know. “This is not a community where people say ‘What was good enough for me is good enough for my kids.' ” Even when most residents agree that improvements in the high school are needed — as they do now, New said — the details become painful and contentious. Bloggers stay busy. Competing committees are formed.

Being home to the main campus of the University of Arkansas means that Fayetteville schools benefit from assets like the children of university faculty members, and from institutions like the Walton Arts Center, New said. But it also means generous criticism for people like New. “The culture is university-dominated,” he says. “But that's part of the beauty of living here.”

New has enjoyed that beauty abundantly. He's still criticized for his part in a book-censorship dispute a couple of years ago, and many who thought he was insufficiently anti-censorship then believe he's insufficiently anti-sprawl now, supportive of a new high school in a new location even though his employer, the School Board, hasn't yet made a decision.

The decision will not be made easily, and not just because there are so many argumentative Fayettevillians. Hard questions are involved — questions about what some call “sprawl” and others call “growth,” about the proper relationship between the public schools and the university, about the proper relationship of the taxpayer to both. The issues divide people who otherwise have much in common.

Alderman Nancy Allen is a public-school supporter and former teacher, a graduate of both Fayetteville High School and the University of Arkansas. She sent a letter to the members of the school board listing reasons to keep the existing high school:

“Retaining the current high school near the center of town will reduce sprawl, the top goal of the city's 2025 plan. … We have 50 years of students who have graduated from the current FHS. It is a destination for them when they visit and a destination for locals. Monuments, awards and memories are there. Donors are connected to that building. … Gifted students can walk a block to access the UofA. Even with extensive remodeling, it would cost less money [than building a new school]. … Routes for parents and accessibility to their child's school would be less difficult.”

Allen, who has fought developers before, was also the lead sponsor of a City Council resolution that says the city's long-range development plan “urges increased density in the central area of Fayetteville [where the existing school is located] and discourages sprawl and moving large traffic-generating facilities toward the outskirts of Fayetteville [where a new school would be located],” that the city lacks funds “to build or enlarge city streets to properly and safely access a distant site of the proposed new or replacement Fayetteville Senior High,” and that, in conclusion, “maintaining FHS's current central location would be advantageous to the City of Fayetteville … ” The resolution was adopted 7-1.

Judy McDonald and Laura Underwood are public-school supporters and former members of the Fayetteville School Board. Underwood also taught at FHS for eight years. (Coincidentally, McDonald's husband is Allen's ophthalmologist.) They and six other former school board members sent a letter to the current members and superintendent New:

“[W]e encourage you to open negotiations with the University of Arkansas for the purchase of the high school site … The sale of the existing campus will allow us to have a completely new and safe campus, new fine arts facilities, new athletic fields, closed campus, parking, and nearly half of the cost will be borne by an entity other than the taxpayers of Fayetteville. … [W]e believe the current high school facility has outlived its usefulness. … Investing more money in this building would be a mistake. We are aware that you have heard from those who want to keep the high school where it is. We believe that when those who oppose this [sale of the existing property] see the actual numbers, it will be difficult for them not to support a $40, $50 or $60 million down payment on a new high school. There is a tremendous amount of community support for a new high school built on the 100 [unused] acres the district currently owns. Additionally, it is supported by the President's Council [a PTA group] and the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce.”

They were wrong, however, in believing that their “actual numbers” would convert opponents of the sale into supporters. The opponents have “actual numbers” of their own. And for some of these opponents, the Chamber of Commerce is more part of the problem than part of the solution. They have similar suspicions about UA officials.

Something of an outcry arose with the recent publication of an August memorandum from Donald O. Pederson, UA vice chancellor for finance and administration, to B. Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System. Pederson wrote on the feasibility of paying for the FHS property by raising tuition and fees for University students. The increase would be on the order of $9 per credit hour, he said.

Asked how he came to write the memo, Pederson told the Arkansas Times by e-mail:

“I may have been asked to keep President Sugg informed but do not recall if it was Chancellor White or Dave Gearhart that may have asked me or if there was some other reason. [John A. White is the outgoing chancellor of UA's Fayetteville campus. Vice Chancellor G. David Gearhart will succeed him as chancellor on July 1.] Since the decision on the property is a Board of Trustees decision and articles were to be written about it, I may have wanted to provide the then current thinking on the subject to the President who has the most interaction with the Board. I don't believe I got a response.”

Sugg, whose office is in Little Rock, told the Times “My response is I don't want to be involved in the controversy.” But he added that UA administrators are considering the long-range interests of the University. UA is presently buying “little pieces of property” around the Fayetteville campus, he said, and the FHS property, if available, would probably be UA's last chance to buy 40 acres of contiguous land. Whether the property will be available is up to the Fayetteville School Board, he said. If UA does have a chance to buy, a tuition increase would be one way to do it, but that decision would be up to the UA Board of Trustees, he said.

The Fayetteville School District has received an appraisal that valued the property at $61.2 million. UA has received an appraisal of $56.5 million.

That the Fayetteville School District already owns land on which a new high school could be built is what the supporters of a new high school have in mind when they say their plan for a new school would be less expensive than the renovations needed on the old one. The School Board purchased the 104 acres in two parcels in 2005 and 2006, paying $58,000 an acre for most of it, according to Superintendent New, who says it's worth more now. The land is at the intersection of Deane Solomon Road and West Salem Road, on the northwestern boundary of the city and the school district. New said the School Board bought the property for “flexibility,” not specifically as a site for a new high school. The seller was Tracy Hoskins, a developer who still owns considerable property in the area. The neighborhood is comparatively lightly developed, which is what supporters of the old high school mean when they talk about the expense of new infrastructure and problems of access. But a Sam's Club is nearby, and Jim Lindsey, a developer and chairman of the UA Board of Trustees, is building an apartment complex not far away. (And new-school supporters say there are access problems at the old school too.)

Not long after the land was purchased, conversation began about replacing the existing high school, New said, and when UA officials heard it, they expressed interest in acquiring the high school property. At a Board of Trustees meeting last year, trustee John Tyson, of the Tyson poultry family, advocated buying the land if it became available, and Chancellor White said the university should consider paying a premium for the land, in order to support the Fayetteville education system, which he said was important to the university. Pederson said that “pretty much all” of the facilities now on the property could be used by the university in productive ways.

Fayetteville High School is among the top high schools in Arkansas, as might be expected of a school in a high-income, high-education area. “We offer the largest number of advanced- placement classes in the state,” New said. But there are problems. Advances in technology have created new demands on the schools. There's been an explosion of interest in the fine arts, according to New, and more rehearsal space is needed. Built in 1952, the school now has an enrollment of 1,900 and a cafeteria that seats 300. The auditorium seats 250. Surrounded by university property and a state highway, the existing site faces tremendous infrastructure challenges, New said. Although FHS has not grown significantly in recent years, its university neighbor has, and traffic problems are particularly pressing on Razorback game days. Fayetteville has “an older population driving more cars,” New said.

(A digression: There are many points to be made in the old-high-school vs. new-high-school debate. Enrollment is one. New said that when he came to Fayetteville 12 years ago, high school enrollment was roughly equal in Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville. Now, Springdale and Rogers have doubled Fayetteville's enrollment, and Bentonville is getting close. Some people want to keep the existing high school in the existing location precisely because it couldn't grow into the kind of “megaschool” that they say serves students poorly. If enrollment increased significantly, it would be better to open a second high school, they say. New says the advanced placement programs would be difficult to manage with two campuses. And, he says, a second high school would be a second large appetite for tax dollars. The existing high school takes up about 15 percent of the school district budget. Springdale's high school enrollment was large enough that Springdale could open a second high school and both schools could compete in the top classification of high school athletics. If Fayetteville split into two schools, they'd probably have to drop down a classification. That might upset fans and alums, and it would probably require more travel. New said he wouldn't enjoy busing a volleyball team to Texarkana, but athletics was not a big concern. In Fayetteville, “The issue is dominated by curriculum, not athletics,” he said.)

McDonald is unintimidated by the other side's warnings against “megaschools.” “We're in competition with every school in the Northwest Arkansas corridor,” she said. “All of them have huge new campuses. We have to compete or we won't have high-income people coming in. They'll want new and better schools. We have to compete for teachers, coaches and students.”

Nor is McDonald impressed by arguments about sprawl. “They say we'll lose our central location. But that location is not central anymore, it's south Fayetteville. ‘Central' as far as the student population is concerned is far north of the present high school. Sprawl has already happened. The city has already moved out.” The 100 acres the school district owns is not the only possible site for a new school, McDonald said. If necessary, the district could sell that property and use the proceeds to buy another site that would better serve a population that has left the downtown area.

McDonald is a leader of a new-school group called StudentsFirst. Janine Parry is the captain of the opposing team, BuildSmart. Both groups have established sophisticated web sites.

Parry is an associate professor of political science at the university as well as director of the university's Arkansas Poll, which periodically samples public opinion on various issues. She says that BuildSmart is a grassroots coalition of folks who want to see a world-class high school, a combination of new construction and renovation, at the current location.

“We want to build a castle in the heart of Fayetteville where students can take classes at the flagship university,” Parry said.

She's dubious of university administrators' talk of paying a premium price for the FHS property by means of raising tuition. “Like all institutions, we're struggling to remain affordable,” Parry said. She fears the university's plan would alienate students, their parents, and even legislators, and so offend Fayetteville voters that they'd reject any millage increase needed to help pay for construction of a school at the new site. “The university leadership can spend a lot of political capital and in the end not get the property,” Parry said. She said there appeared to be a division between top university administrators on one side, and students, faculty and staff on the other.

The value of the FHS property to the university is questionable, Parry said. “We need large, technologically sophisticated lecture halls. The other side is saying that the FHS building is not technologically adequate for their needs. Why would it be good for the university?”

Opponents of the proposed sale of the FHS property frequently suggest there are people on the other side poised to profit improperly if not illegally from the sale of the property and the development of a new school site. Parry said her e-mail is flooded with such communications. But she's unaware of any direct sort of hanky-panky involving the new-school movement. As a political scientist, she said, she knows there are people in every community who are “pro-growth, or what I'd call pro-sprawl” and who make money from new development. That's their business, and it's not illegal. She also knows, she said, that there are people who are “no-growth,” who want to keep things as they've always been. “But I think there are more people who are ‘smart growth,' and that's what I want.”

Fayetteville has experienced “white-hot school politics” in recent years, fired by school closings and by a feeling that the school board and superintendent were unresponsive. (New denies the accusation.) So many voters were mad at the school board and the superintendent in this educated community that they soundly rejected the last school millage submitted to them. Parry predicts that the people will do so again, if the school board offers a millage increase tied to a new site for the high school. A school board committee is scheduled to report in April with a recommendation on how the school board should proceed.

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