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The Mountain Home Public School Board held a special meeting and training session on Thursday to tackle the district’s facilities master plan for 2024.
The school district is currently racing against the clock to add a transitional facility plan to next year’s master plan before Feb. 1 of next year after being notified by the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation that failure to meet the deadline would result in the district being placed in “facilities distress”.
The meeting, which included an hour-long public discussion, was attended by Arkansas Association of School Facilities Planner Aliza Jones, who attempted to set the record straight on the situation surrounding the district and its high school.
Jones also cleared up questions surrounding her employment by stating that while she worked for the division in the past, she was no longer a state employee. Jones is a member of the Arkansas Association of School Facilities Planners and was hired by the district to assist with its master plan.
Master Facilities Plan
At the start of her presentation, Jones went into the background of how the facilities master plan originated in Arkansas.
In the late 1990s, a lawsuit was filed by the Lake View School District against the state due to the inadequacy of education funding for school facilities around the state. The case would work its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which would ultimately agree with Lake View and create eight mandates that the state and its school districts had to follow immediately.
One of those mandates was the creation of a facilities master plan that had to be submitted to the state every six years. The plan includes 15 separate components that span demographics, enrollment, condition assessment, maintenance, prevention, custodial services and short/long-term district projects.
According to Jones, the master plan, which was created in 2005, is a living document that is updated every year, with partnership application years falling on even-numbered years, and odd-numbered years being simple updates.
For the upcoming 2024 years, Jones said that the district would not be seeking a millage increase and would instead be applying for a partnership to replace the roofs at Guy Berry and the vocational building at Mountain Home High School.
Jones stated that the district would know if the two projects were approved in the Fall of 2024 but would not know if the partnership funding was approved until May 1, 2025.
The district is also committing to four other projects in its master plan, including parking at the district’s baseball complex, the installation of Mountain Home Fire Marshall Shawn Lofton’s fire detection upgrades in the Big Top, restroom renovations at the junior high, and the creation of ADA compliant playgrounds at each campus.
Other planned projects, which do not have to be completed right away, include new perimeter and interior fencing at Bomber Stadium, tennis courts at the high school, a new HVAC system for the junior high gym, a new roof at the junior high’s agriculture building, a new roof at Guy Berry, a renovation of Bomber Stadium, and a new high school building.
Jones said the district would seek partnership funding for its Big Top issue in 2026, if it was determined that the structure had to come down.
Also discussed was the division’s warning letter stating that the district had six years to come up with a plan to address issues with the Big Top.
Jones said that while the division itself cannot shutter MHHS if the district fails to address its issues, it can make a recommendation to the Commission for Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation. The State’s Fire Marshal can also put a lock on the building.
Community activists have put a large focus on the official state warning letter, claiming that district officials gave mixed messages over the letter by claiming they were told to tear down the Big Top by the division in a September meeting despite the letter only calling for a plan to remedy safety concerns with the Big Top.
After the meeting, Mountain Home Superintendent Allyson Dewey said in an email update to the press, “After visiting with representatives from the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation today, we have been informed that we will have until 2030 to eliminate the PMB structure (the big top and the buildings under it). They have charged the Board with developing transition plans along the way during this 6-year window. The Board will begin transition planning in the coming weeks, and staff and community input will be essential as we move forward.”
In a phone interview with the Observer, Jones, who attended the meeting, said the division and the district discussed several options including attempting to find a way to install a sprinkler system, removing the big top but leaving the original school underneath, or taking another attempt at a partial rebuild.
Jones said the sprinkler system was considered unfeasible due to the structural issues. She also said the division and the district discussed doing nothing if the building was deemed safe in the state’s fire marshal report.
No recording of the Zoom meeting between the district and the division exists.
The Elephant in the Room
After going over the background of the district’s facilities master plan, Jones took on the issue of the Big Top at MHHS.
Jones began tackling the subject by clearing up the public misconception that the state had demanded that the district remove the Big Top and the original high school building beneath it.
In actuality, it was the district, led at the time by former Mountain Home Superintendent Jake Long, that requested the building be torn down in their 2022 application for partnership funding when updating their Master Plan.
“We might as well talk about the elephant in the room,” said Jones during the meeting. “The state did not come in and say the high school has to come down. The district went to the state and said, ‘We want to take the high school down.’ When you put in a partnership project for the demolition of a building, the state comes up with their team, and they do an FCI condition of that building. And they will either agree or not agree with it on removing the building.”
The request prompted the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation to send in a team to review the FCI condition of the high school. Following their inspection, the state contested the district’s plans to demolish its cafeteria, library and fine arts area, but later agreed that the cafeteria would need to be demolished after realizing that the Big Top could not be removed without damaging that part of the building.
The state also conducted a code evaluation that covered fire and ADA compliance. Structural engineers also assessed the Big Top through local and state fire marshal assessments.
“Once they realized that PMB structure could not be taken down without damaging the cafeteria, even though it was a 1996 build, they said you’re right. We’re going to give you that additional square footage,” Jones said.
During her presentation, Jones said that the age of a building does not determine whether a building needs to come down. Instead, the state reviews a warm, safe and dry list from the district for reference when looking at repair versus replacement. The list includes a set of components for the building such as its roof and electricity, along with what it would cost to build a replacement, which is based on the age of the building and its condition assessment.
If the facility condition index (FCI) reaches a 65% threshold, then the state recommends a new build.
Jones also noted that the state has a construction funding cap of $289 per square foot for new construction and that current costs for new construction run from $320 to $400 per square foot. The State Legislature is currently only approving $70 million in funding for its 237 districts.
Funding, if approved, is based on the median household income for each district. For Mountain Home that is $43,799, with the state paying 44 cents on the dollar per square foot. Mountain Home School Board member Scott Booth noted that it was 44 cents on the dollar to the $289 per square foot price and not the total project cost.
Only 18 districts out of the 120 that applied received a form of funding last year. In the training session that followed the public meeting, Jones revealed that Mountain Home was set to receive $1.4 million in funding to help rebuild MHHS, but had the funding removed due to the State Legislature implementing a law that required school districts to build a tornado shelter in any new building.
Mountain Home’s money was then diverted after three districts, that had passed millage increases to build new schools before the State Legislature introduced the new law, requested that the state cover the new requirements so that construction could be completed.
Following her clarification on who requested for the Big Top to come down, Jones began addressing public comments that were sent to the district before the meeting.
Jones began by taking up a comment that stated that the “current big top presents no safety hazards to students or faculty.”
“On July 19, the local fire marshal stated, ‘The Big Top is a firefighter’s nightmare. The issues need to be addressed as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic event and a major loss to the community,’” rebutted Jones.
Jones continued by quoting an email from State Fire Marshal Dennis Free stating “The addition of the Big Top does provide an added hazard for firefighters. The structural report from the engineer states that the structure cannot withstand any additional weight such as a sprinkler system.”
“How can a catastrophic event, a major loss to the community and a firefighters’ nightmare not allude to some safety concerns with students and staff if the fire marshal doesn’t want to send his guys in? So, just saying that there is no present danger, is not fully accurate.”
Jones was later asked in the meeting by Melissa Klinger to read the email chain in full. A full look at the email reveals that Free also said “As for the building being unsafe for students and staff, we did not notice any concerns” before stating that the Big Top does provide added hazards for firefighters.
When asked for recommendations on what the district should do in the email chain, Free responded, “From a Fire Marshal’s and Firefighter’s safety standpoint, the structure needs to be removed and replaced.”
During Thursday’s meeting, Jones said that she had officially requested formal documentation from Free on what the district should do since he contradicted himself on the high school. In that email, Jones asked if Mountain Home Fire Marshal Shawn Lofton’s safety recommendations would make the building safe and compliant, as well as asking what the district needs to do if they chose not to demolition and replace the Big Top.
“Regardless of whatever angst community members have against the district, against me, against the state. The bottom line is the kids. That’s the bottom line, and I want the state fire marshal and I want our local fire marshal to put it in writing that those recommendations will make the building safety compliant and will not lead to a catastrophic event and a community loss,” Jones said.
Jones said that if Lofton’s recommendations are all that’s needed, then the district, which is already implementing said recommendations, would not need to act on the Big Top and would move on to other projects. Jones also said the division’s concerns would be satisfied and the district would no longer have to worry about being placed in facilities distress.
Both MHPS and the division have been waiting for Free to finish his official Mountain Home High School report over the last few months.
If Free’s report does conclude that the Big Top must come down, then Jones said the district would have to find a way to tackle the issue. Jones said if the building is renovated by 10%, the entire building will have to be brought up to code, which also demands the installation of a sprinkler system that the Big Top structure cannot support.
The district would be right back to square one.
Following Jones’s statements, members of the community pushed back on the district and requested to know why the local and state fire marshals had not been documenting the structural and safety issues at the high school prior to the lead-up to the district’s request for a millage increase.
Jones responded by saying she thought that not many people knew what was up in the Big Top. When pressed further, she said the public would have to ask their local fire marshal. It should be noted that Mountain Home Fire Marshal Shawn Lofton has only been the city’s fire marshal for one year. Lofton has toured the Big Top multiple times and has documented its problems.
Former Mountain Home Fire Marshal Gary Pyszka retired in 2022.
Following public comments, the district participated in the master facility plan training with Jones. While the training was open to the public, those who did attend the public comment section of the meeting left as the training started. The training covered many of the same topics that were covered during the public comment section of the board’s meeting.
The board is expected to vote on its master plan next month.