Jacksonville Mayor: Millage Vote a 'Game Changer'


Jacksonville Mayor: Millage Vote a 'Game Changer'
A rendering of the new Jacksonville High School.

Jacksonville's new high school — the crowning jewel of the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District — should be welcoming visitors to town by the fall of 2019, thanks to voters who on Tuesday approved a 7.6 mill property tax increase that will fund facilities for the new district.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher called the results a "game changer" for his city of about 30,000. The new school will be built just off the intersection of Main Street and Highway 67/167, the same site that currently houses the old Northside and Southside junior high schools.

Fletcher is confident the new school will serve as a welcoming beacon, its courtyards opened up to and clearly visible from the highway, but also entice potential new residents.

"Communities around us have been growing because of their schools," he said. "We've been losing population, and the perception of the schools is part of that. Education is the foundation to any economic development. It's a tide that raises all ships." 

Jacksonville city leaders are convinced the creation of the new 4,000-student district and the construction of the new high school represent that tide. For decades, Jacksonville residents longed to break away from the Pulaski County Special School District, mired in a desegregation lawsuit and burdened with aging facilities and a perception of underperforming schools.

In 2014, city voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new district, which will formally detach from the county district on July 1. As its own entity within the county, it remains accountable to federal desegregation guidelines to improve facilities. 

The millage increase passed with 55 percent of the vote — compared to the 95 percent of voters who approved of the new district's creation — and the results mean site preparation can begin this summer. 

In addition to the new high school, a new elementary school will be built on the grounds of the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville and multi-purpose rooms added to four existing elementary schools.

North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville is included in the new district but will close after the current school year. Its students will be transferred to the existing Jacksonville High School on Linda Lane. North Pulaski will be converted into the new Jacksonville Middle School, whose students currently attend a make-shift JMS at the old Northwood Junior High in northern Pulaski County.

Northwood had been closed but was brought back into service for the 2015-16 school year to house Jacksonville's middle school students. The facility will remain a part of the county district after July 1.

WER Architects and Baldwin Shell will provide the design and construction work for the new schools. 

"Part A of this whole process was the election to create the new district," Fletcher said. "Part B was Tuesday. Under desegregation, there was no way to build new facilities in Jacksonville without it. If it hadn't passed, then the federal judge may have had to step in."

The vote will enable the district to generate about $46 million to go toward financing a bond issue. JNPSD board president Darrin Gray told KUAR the district will receive $20 million to $25 million from the state and another $8 million from the U.S. Department of Defense because the new elementary school will be located on the air base. 

Fletcher said he's already received interest from developers about new major retail projects, including an Edwards Food Giant, in Jacksonville.

"They told me they only looked at Jacksonville because of the new school district," he said.