Voters in the Izard County Consolidated School district will have a chance to change the way board members are elected in the Sept. 16 election. Izard County Election Commission members have approved a rezoning issue for the ICC school.
The issue will be placed on the ballot as the result of a petition filed July 25 after ICC board members asked voters for additional mills in a special election in May. Voters rejected the millage increase which will make it necessary for the Izard County Quorum Court to raise the total millage to 41 after the first of the year, said Charles Cheatham, chairman of Izard County Election Commission.
The petition was signed by at least 10 percent of the population in the district, Cheatham said.
Shelly Downing, Izard County deputy clerk, said the clerk's office received 474 signatures; the required number was 354 to get the rezoning issue placed on the ballot.
Dr. Lee Mears, petition organizer, said zoning changes can be made by race or population, so the request was based on population.
Horseshoe Bend finances about 90 percent of the school district costs, Mears said.
If the vote passes then the election commission will be responsible for drawing the ward lines based on population.
Mears said he thinks the school board made a decision without talking to the people.
Mears was superintendent for nine years in Calico Rock and is a retired superintendent from Valley Springs where he worked for six years.
Mears said many concerned citizens requested he speak at various public meetings about the millage increase.
"We are not against education," he said. He added the millage increase would have enlarged the school gym and made improvements to the dressing rooms. Mears said he doesn't want residents to get the wrong idea -- he does support school athletics.
He maintains that schools should have waited before placing the millage increase on the special ballot. He said he thinks school board members tried to take advantage of the situation and not enough choices were given to voters.
A second organizer of the petition, Rick Billingsley of Violet Hill, former school superintendent of Swifton, Norfork and Concord school districts echoes the objections of Mears. Billingsley said when voters were asked to raise the millage they were given only one option on the ballot. He disagrees that extra mills were necessary. He said voters should have had the option to transfer mills in order to restructure the debt. "It showed a lack of respect for taxpayers," he said.
Billingsley said the school board is not keeping the whole district in mind when spending money. He said a lot of money goes toward athletics instead of academics. He said, "I call it like I see it."
He said Fred Walker, ICC superintendent, contested the petition and said it was not a legal petition because it was not notarized. Billingsley said the document did not need to be notarized.
Billingsley said one of the problems at ICC is nepotism. "I don't think it's ethical," he said. He alleges the school hires family of school board members, and spouses of employees are hired too frequently, he said.
Walker disagreed with Billingsley's statement regarding nepotism. He acknowledged that some employees are related to board members but said that in a small community there is no way around it.
He said no school board member has ever requested a family member be hired. Walker said all employee's credentials are checked before the hiring process.
Walker said the old plan has worked for over a decade and he doesn't see any need to rezone the wards. In 1985 a pre-consolidation agreement was signed between the old Violet Hill and Oxford districts. He said since that time things have run smoothly and voters have been able to choose board members.
But if the rezoning issue is approved then voters will be allowed to vote for only one elected official per zone, Walker explained. "I don't see any need for it," Walker said.
In an attempt to save ICC from school consolidation a special election was held May 27 to restructure its debt. ICC proposed an increase of 5.53 mills instead of the 10.53 mills the Arkansas State Supreme Court required, but the vote was shot down 247 to 192.
It would have added $11.06 to every $10,000 of appraised property had it passed, said Walker. But since the vote failed the Izard County Quorum Court will be forced to mandate an increase of 10.53 mills in December.
Billingsley said a special election can be held again after the first of the year to vote against the new millage the court will enact. He said one special election per year can be held regarding millage rates.
Walker attributed the failed vote to confusion by voters. He said he thinks voters did not understand that overall it would save residents money. He added that some voters questioned whether the small school would still be in use after September when the special legislative session begins.
The money would have been used to add to the 50-year-old elementary school structure. The plans included a new fourth through sixth grade elementary addition to include a band hall, art room and library.
The high school would have benefited with the addition of a multi-use facility to be used for physical education classes and, with a stage for plays, drama and graduation. Other plans included remodeling the high school and elementary schools gyms.
Three of the mills could have been appropriated to maintenance and operation to recoup state cutbacks the school sustained in the last few years. Maintenance and operation is anything in school budget besides debt that recur every month or year, including the gas and electric bill.
The election was held in an effort to meet the requirement of Amendment 74. Amendment 74, passed in 1996, requires that all public schools dedicate 25 mills to maintenance and operations expense.
The Legislature passed Act 1300 in 1997 which allowed schools to count excess debt service mills toward the 25-mill maintenance and operations requirement. Excess debt service mills are those mills required by lending institutions as insurance that schools will have enough revenue to make their debt payments each year.