Pulaski County voters last week overwhelmingly approved a property tax extension to fund a major expansion of Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood.
With 100 percent of precincts counted, the measure passed with 2,628 votes, or 66 percent, in favor and 1,337 against.
At a watch party in Sherwood, Linda George, co-chairman of a committee that worked to pass the millage extension, announced passage of the measure at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s done,” she said into a microphone, smiling. “Sixty-six percent!”
Although the polls had closed two hours earlier, George said election officials told her a technical glitch prevented posting results to the election commission website, and watch party volunteers were directed to go to the Pulaski County Election Commission Facebook page instead. For over an hour, the only results known were from the absentee and early vote count, which showed strong support for the millage extension, with 71 percent in favor.
At 9:25, George stepped to the microphone and announced that 60 percent of precincts were tabulated and support for the extension was still strong, then five minutes later she announced the final unofficial result as supporters broke out into applause and cheers.
The measure extends 15 mills of the district’s 40-mill tax rate to 30 years, with it due to sunset in 2048. Had the measure failed, the additional millage was scheduled to expire in 2035. Officials have stressed during the campaign that the measure is not a tax increase, but an extension of the time the school district can collect an additional 14.8 mills that has been in effect for several years.
“Nobody’s property taxes will increase over what they are paying now,” George said, as she explained how the extension will work. “People will pay the same rate going forward that they’ve been paying, but they’ll pay it a few years longer.”
The extension, which had no organized opposition, will allow the district to fund a $66 million expansion of the high school and meet other critical needs.
The original school, built in the 1960s, was designed to accommodate 850 students. After sending 9th grade students to another campus to relieve overcrowding, officials say the Sylvan Hills campus is still bursting at the seams with over 1100 students in grades 10 through 12.
Such overcrowding places a strain on virtually all resources school officials can bring to bear and requires close management to keep things running, according to Superintendent Jerry Guess.
“We’re using every space we have. We’ve got old storage rooms we’ve converted to classrooms, we’ve got portable classrooms that were already there and we’ve had to bring in more to meet the need for classroom space,” he said.
The school cafeteria, with a legal capacity of 300 students, requires creativity to ensure that no students miss lunch, said Tracy Allen, Sylvan Hills High School principal. He said some teachers have requested prep periods during the lunchtime periods to alleviate the strain.
“The teachers volunteer to tutor kids, and other students do volunteer peer tutoring, which allows students to take their lunch to the classroom to eat. Legally, we can accommodate 300 kids per lunch shift, so at nearly 1500 students, you can see we are still well over capacity,” Allen said. “Also, we’ve found some creative ways to supervise our kids before school starts because we don’t have any space large enough to accommodate all of the students at once.”
In addition to the cafeteria, the school auditorium will not hold more than one grade level at a time, the gymnasium is not large enough to hold the number of people who follow the school’s sporting events, and the school has just one science lab for the entire campus. Rapid growth, said the superintendent, has left the district struggling to fund enough expansion to meet the need.
“Sylvan Hills has experienced tremendous growth in the past few years, and enrollment has been growing by over 150 students a year,” said Guess. “In fact, our incoming ninth-grade class outnumbers our graduating class by over 100 students. We’ve got to have some room.”
Guess said that despite the age of the current high school, the building is in good condition, so rather than start from scratch, a better option is to expand onto the existing building. Plans are to build a new cafeteria, new auditorium, new gymnasium, and to add nine new science labs to the one the school now has. Existing classroom space is to be upgraded and renovated and new classroom space added.
With passage of the extension, Guess said construction can begin as soon as late fall, a timetable that should be sufficient to complete the new facility in time for the 2018-19 school year.
Had the extension failed to gain passage, school officials, such as Allen, said faculty and staff would have continued to seek innovative ways to provide a quality education, but he admitted that as his school’s growth continues unabated, solutions would have gotten more difficult to find.
“We would probably have had to just keep adding portable classrooms, but even if necessary, that isn’t a desirable solution from a number of standpoints,” Allen said. “Because they are separate from the building, students and teachers are required to deal with whatever weather happens to be in store that day, they are not as secure, and they are not as safe as a brick and mortar structure for a number of reasons.”
But with passage of the millage extension, Allen said he is excited about the coming expansion. The day after the election, he was at Sylvan Hills High School, granting interviews and pointing out how the planned expansion is to fit in with the current facility.
“We’re going to build a new cafeteria and media center and repurpose those areas into classroom space,” Allen said, as he surveyed the spaces. “We’ll have a new gymnasium, and we’re looking at keeping the old one to convert into a physical education complex.”
A new auditorium is also in the works, but Allen said nothing has yet been decided about the current auditorium, with seating for less than 600 people, although he said it will possibly be used as performance or lecture space where a smaller venue is needed. He said the current football stadium will stay, but will be reconfigured so the home entrance sits next to the school building instead of on the opposite side of the stadium where it is currently situated. The field house, he said, will razed to make way for additional parking, and the old junior high building, with its 19 classrooms, will also be removed to make way for additional education space ad more parking for the still growing student body.
Construction, he said, is planned to begin by December, with the intended completion in August of 2019, just in time for the opening of the 2019-20 school year. Allen said the school board had already gotten architect to begin drawing up design plans so the district could be ready to start construction almost immediately upon passage of the extension, a gamble that seems to have paid off. Allen said the new design is intended to create an environment conducive to both learning and teaching while staying true to the original design elements.
“The plan is to make it all look seamless,” Allen said, looking out across the campus as though he could already see the new form taking shape. “Once it is completed it will be a beautiful setup.”