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They always say the third time’s a charm.
During their discussion on complying with the state’s mandated 2030 timeline to fix Mountain Home High School Wednesday evening, members of the Mountain Home Public School Board floated the possibility of attempting a third, narrowly focused millage attempt to save the district from a state takeover.
The Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation gave MHPS a tight deadline of six years on Sept. 22 to completely tear down and rebuild everything currently residing under MHHS’s “Big Top” or face a district takeover that would see the firings of several district officials, potential layoffs, and the end to many of MHHS’s extracurricular student activities.
Only two members of the public, both journalists, attended Wednesday’s special school board session.
“I know at the Thursday school board meeting, we talked about how Friday was a big meeting,” said MHPS Director of Operations Chris Knight. “We talked to the state, the facilities division. And I’ve attached everything there if you want to read the final verdict. Basically, we have six years, by 2030, to have all the kids out of that building, or everything underneath that pre-engineered metal building. During that time, we have to give them updates with every master plan.”
According to a state letter sent to MHPS Superintendent Allyson Dewey on Sept. 25, following the district’s Sept. 22 meeting, MHPS’s will have until Feb. 1, 2024, to submit a transitional facility plan in their Facilities Master Plan. The details of that transitional plan, once submitted next year, must be completed by 2023.
If MHPS fails to come up with a transitional facilities plan by Feb. 1, 2024, the state will place the district in “Facilities Distress.” Both Knight and Josh Siebert of Modus Studio said coming up with a plan could be remedied through working sessions since the district is already aware of the needs of the high school.
Dewey said the focus of the district should be on the high school’s needs and that teacher/staff/student wants will have to take a back seat.
“I want you all to know, that as we move forward, I’d really like for you to think about your needs versus your wants,” Dewey said. “That’s probably going to be the first planning session. I just went and walked the building, and I wrote down everything that’s in there right now. I had one want, and I’m not going to say right now, but it’s one that I can’t imagine much pushback on and it’s something that’ll just be best for everybody. So, be thinking needs and wants.”
The Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation did not offer any financial assistance to MHPS with its distressed high school. Dewey said the district could apply for a round of financial assistance, but the board would not learn if it was approved or denied until May 2025.
The school district was not approved for financial assistance during the district’s last attempted millage increase to fix MHHS.
Siebert said it takes roughly six years from planning to completion to finish a project of the high school’s size.
“Six years sounds great. It isn’t,” said Knight.
In addition to discussing the state mandate, Knight told the school board that the state was now deferring to the Mountain Home Fire Department for recommendations on fire and life safety at MHHS.
Earlier in July, Shawn Lofton, the fire marshal for MHFD, compiled a list of recommendations for MHHS including the installation of a new reflective beam smoke detector system in the Big Top.
Knight said those recommendations were already being acted upon during Wednesday’s meeting.
“We’ve already started that,” Knight said. “We have that smoke system that he wanted ordered. It should be installed by November. And there’s one other thing, he wants some holes cut in the roof for venting that we’ll get on here in the next couple of weeks. Those things are easy.”
A district out of money
With a real mandate set against them by the state, MHPS is officially under the gun to knock down and replace the “Big Top.” A not so easy feat for a district that currently has a $1 million deficit in its annual operating budget.
At this time, MHPS is currently in a hiring freeze due to its tight budget, with outgoing teachers not being replaced after their departure. Roughly 80% of the district’s budget goes toward teacher salaries, with the remaining 20% going towards maintenance and the repayment of the district’s bonds, according to Mountain Home School Board member Bob Chester.
While Dewey said she wanted the district’s coffers to contribute towards fixing the high school, she is also concerned about keeping a safety net for surprise issues like broken air conditioning units.
The district’s building fund currently has $6,724,474.51 available per the district’s Cycle 9 and Cycle 1 Budget Report.
“I’d love to be able to contribute some and we’re looking at that with our building fund, but we also have to keep a safety net in my opinion,” Dewey said.
As the discussion around money continued, the talk shifted towards a third millage option that would run taxpayers around $30-35 million for a bare needs fix to the high school. The discussion over the millage also brought up an exchange between Chester and MHPS School Board member Scott Booth.
In that exchange, Chester dived into the drama and resentment between the school board and local activists that boiled over during the district’s last millage attempt in May. Chester also called out Booth for failing to take a side during May’s election, while demanding to know where he stood on the issue now that he would have to vote on it.
Booth responded by stating that his neutrality allowed him to hear both sides of the issue during the election and that much of the complaints he heard surrounded the district’s overreaching in their ask for additional money to fix the “Big Top.” Booth also said he believed that the public would go for a reasonable tax increase to fix what needed to be fixed.
In his rebuttal, Booth did acknowledge that some of the arguments made by local activists against the district’s last millage increase were “outlandish.”
The school board ultimately agreed they would have to set aside their personal feelings and work with the wider community to find a solution to the “Big Top.”
The full exchange can be seen below.