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Voters to decide Viola millage increase

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The March 11 election might mean sink or swim for the Viola School District. March 11 is when voters go to the polls to decide on passing a new millage increase.

"Our rate has been consistently one of the lowest in the state over the last 20-plus years because we have not asked for tax dollars that were not needed," Viola School Superintendent John May said.

"However, the need is now here and we are asking voters for their support in passing 10.8 additional mills," May said.

According to May, there are two main reasons for the increase.

Due to the decrease in enrollment and additional state standards the school budget has decreased. Secondly, May notes that a statewide school facilities study in 2004 had identified Viola's High School buildings to be in need of improvement.

The school is given a set amount by the state for each student enrolled and since 2004 enrollment has declined at the same time state mandated requirements have increased. This leaves the school with more expenditures with a smaller budget, according to May.

"From 2003 to 2006, our enrollment dropped from 465 students to 410. Those 54 students would have generated $311,580 this year in state funding," May said. "While we have been taking this financial hit, there have been increased requirements placed upon us by legislation that required additional advanced classes, remediation classes, art, music, physical education, and more," he said.

"Meeting these requirements have forced us to add more teachers. We have also used these additions to help make us one of the top performing districts in Arkansas (2007 Golden Apple Award)," May said.

However, an addition of teachers at a time of decreased revenue coming from Little Rock has impacted the school considerably, according to May.

"Since 2002, we have seen a steady decrease in available funds. Right now, our savings are depleted. As a result, we have not increased our teacher salary schedule and are looking for more ways to save money. Soon, we may find ourselves in the Arkansas Department of Education's Financial Distress Program," he said.

"Although some cuts are inevitable, larger cuts at the expense of our students will soon have to be implemented unless we are able to pass this millage," May said.

"Although the new mills we are asking for are specified for debt service, they will not all be used to issue bonds and build, unless our enrollment increases drastically. We are planning to use nearly six mills for the maintenance and operation of our district until that enrollment increase occurs, which may be never. Without these mills, we will only be able to offer the required bare minimum in education," he said.

In 2004, the Arkansas Legislature commissioned an independent study on the condition of all K-12 public school facilities in Arkansas.

Viola High School is currently housed in seven buildings. Four of those buildings were recommended for replacement. The study also recommended the need for a new high school, according to May.

"In May 2007, we were approved for partnership funds to build a completely new high school. This meant that the Arkansas legislature would pay for 42.4 percent of a new high school at Viola (total project approved for over $10 million). However, we must fund the remaining 57.6 percent," he said.

"After much discussion with the Arkansas Academic Facilities Department, it was agreed that an entire new high school would not be required. Our high school could continue sharing as many facilities as possible with the elementary, and the current agri building was found sufficient to meet our needs. This allowed us to cut the amount we are responsible for considerably," he said.

"In a few years, this building program may not be available and it would likely cost Viola more then double to build the same facilities. This is our chance to make the improvements to build Viola's High School for the 21st Century," May said.

According to May, the benefits of the project go beyond the high school alone.

"This project will not only benefit our high school. The additional space vacated by our best high school buildings will provide areas that can be used by our elementary and headstart students. Our elementary students would finally have a physical education building dedicated to their use," he said.

"There could also be a space for additional elementary classes if our enrollment increases; a state mandated alternative learning classroom on our campus that would end the daily bussing of students to Glencoe; and the possibility of additional state funding to start a preschool ABC program, which would be coordinated with the existing headstart to serve more families in our community. We are also applying for federal funding through FEMA to incorporate a community safe room/hallway into the new facilities," May said.

"One of our most frequent asked questions about our new high school has been whether or not it includes a gym? Over the past two years, students' required physical education time has often been spent sitting in a classroom when the weather didn't permit then to go outside. Some type of physical education facility is needed. We are currently working with an architect to develop two sets of plans. One includes a very simple physical education facility built specifically for elementary use. The 10.8 mills we are asking for includes this much needed facility. It will be the second part of the two phase building project," May said.

"Since our board members have received many comments in favor of a new gymnasium rather then a physical education facility, a second set of plans has been drawn up. Before the second phase of building begins, we will consider again the additional cost of a gymnasium/preforming arts auditorium," May said.

"At that time, we will likely have to ask voters to approve another millage increase to build this nicer facility. In my opinion, this second increase needs to be considered separately, because it is not an immediate need. The future existence of Viola's school is hanging on the passage of these 10.8 mills, which are intended to meet our immediate needs," he said.

"Viola school is one of only a handful of schools in Arkansas whose enrollment is less then 500 students. We are asking that you come out on March 11 and support our school and the future of our community. We are asking so we will be able to offer more then just the bare minimum required education in buildings which will likely place us in the Arkansas Department of Education Facilities Distress Program," May said.

Anyone with questions or comments about the millage increase can contact May at 870-458-2323.

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