BIC Millage meetings draw big crowds

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Buffalo Island Central School District held two meetings to discuss the upcoming Sept. 16 millage vote that would help fund a new PreK-12 grade campus to be located at the Mississippi/Craighead County line. Both meetings drew large crowds anxious to ask questions and get information.

BIC superintendent Gaylon Taylor stood by BIC junior high student Morgan James as she addressed a packed cafeteria.

The first meeting held Tuesday, Aug. 26, had to be moved from the Monette campus to BIC East in Leachville due to a power outage. The second meeting was held Thursday, Aug. 28, at the BIC East cafeteria. At the second meeting attendees got handouts explaining the millage, school facts, project cost and how to compute taxes. On Sept. 2 there will be a third meeting at BIC West at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria and there will also be a meeting held in Black Oak on Thursday, Sept. 4.

At the meetings two teachers, Faith Rolland and Matthew Sills, as well as administrators Dr. Kima Stewart, Nicole Stewart, Randy Rose, Superintendent Gaylon Taylor, student Morgan James and board member Jason Stewart spoke. Also on hand were architects John Mixon and Hardy Little, a representative from Beardsley and Associates, and Adam Seiter with Nabholz Construction. The speakers were there to share information patrons might not know about the district as well as answer questions.

Before each meeting began Taylor laid out some ground rules saying the meetings were not for debates and would be for questions and comments only.

"I can't help but say these last few weeks have been challenging," Taylor said at the first meeting. "We have prided ourselves on having the best community in the world in these two towns of Monette and Leachville. I'm a little disappointed in the way we are acting as adults. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but why make this ugly. Why take something that we have worked 30 years to build to destroy it in two weeks. You are never going to convince someone that is going to vote no to vote yes unless they are open minded and you present the facts to them."

Taylor said the district doesn't want to tell people how to vote but hoped the meetings would clear up some rumors, misconceptions and present citizens with facts. He did address a newspaper ad that said BIC had 875 students. Taylor said we have 802 students, which is up from last year's 792 students.

"We did have a declining enrollment," Taylor said. "But we stopped the bleeding this year and had an increase in students. All of this information is on the state website if you want to look it up."

Teacher Faith Rolland spoke during both meetings. Rolland lives in Monette but teaches in Leachville. She said she doesn't have children of her own but her students are her kids. Rolland wanted to share things that citizens may not know. Those things included when the campuses were designed 50 plus years ago space was not allowed for P.E., art and music, which are now state required classes. Rolland explained these teachers hold class wherever possible because they don't have a space of their own. Elementary P.E. is held on the playground weather permitting, music in the cafeteria and art in the gym lobby.

"I'm for this for my kids and I've been here long enough I have grandkids," Rolland said. "Our teachers definitely need to be on one campus."

She also brought up flooding issues at the junior high, teachers losing preparation time because they have to travel and if special programs aren't willing to go to both towns one school misses out on those things. BIC East Elementary principal Nicole Stewart talked about the double costs of assemblies, fun days and how in severe weather getting all the students to safety with four campuses is a daunting task. She also spoke about the school nurse, counselor, music, art and P.E. teachers only being on campus for part of the day because they have to travel back and forth between two towns.

Student Morgan James spoke from a student perspective of what it is like to be a junior high student and basketball player at BIC. James said right now the gym for basketball practice is 95 degrees and in the winter the team practices with their coats on because it's so cold. She talked about getting soaking wet or freezing while walking to the cafeteria and how the student lounge floods.

"Before you vote no I invite you to practice with me in the gym, walk with me in the rain, sleet and snow to the cafeteria and sit with me in the student lounge when it is flooded," James said.

Taylor then talked about the need for technology. He said in 1997-2000 classrooms across the state started using laptops on a small scale.

"That is something we didn't start doing until 13 years later," Taylor said. "We are three years away from using laptops on a large scale, which most schools already use."

Taylor went on to explain that some districts already have one device for each student but BIC is years away from having one on one devices in part because the buildings will not support the infrastructure needed. School Board member and Monette City Council member Jason Stewart spoke about the need for technology. He said as a college teacher at ASU, which requires students to use an iPad in classes, students who know how to use technology is important. Stewart said college students are expected to know how to use those devices when they come to class.

"At the college level we don't teach students how to use a tablet, they have to know," Stewart said. "They are required to use technology and if they don't know how they cannot complete the classes required to get a degree. Everybody has an opinion but in the end we need to do what is best for our kids."

Stewart prior to Tuesday's meeting said he was in favor of utilizing resources for the maximum benefit of students. He also felt that the new school being located on Highway 18 would not hinder either town saying BIC students would still come from Monette and Leachville as well as surrounding areas that would not change. Others from Monette disagreed saying that when a school moves out of a community it hurts.

"As Mayor of the city of Monette I wish we could have it both ways but we can't," Chub Qualls said. "I have to stand for what is good for the city of Monette as well as for the children, so no I'm not for it. I don't want to see these schools moved out and these buildings left abandoned. I've never seen a situation where this happened and the city grew. It always went negatively. I'm speaking for the city standpoint. We are not against children in any way we are just against where it is being built."

Others echoed Qualls' concern of location. Some feel moving the schools out of the two towns will hurt both communities while others believe the towns will grow to meet the school. Taylor did say in the meeting that it would be his recommendation to donate the Leachville campus' gymnasium to the city and sell the remaining property so that homes and business could be developed there. He said the high school in Monette could possibly be used for vocational programs while the remainder of the school buildings could be demolished to allow development. Taylor did say he was against leaving abandoned buildings in the towns.

"I'm against it," Rick Cohn said. "The location needs to stay in the towns. Kids are already being bused to Leachville and Monette but some are able to walk to school. I would rather have a few be able to walk to school than no kids being able to."

Dr. Stewart addressed that during her speech saying kids do walk to school while others live in locations not on a bus route. When bad weather hits in the winter some children can't make it to school because they don't have a way to get there. She said the new combined campus would mean more city routes for students so everyone is able to get to school. Stewart also addressed the age of elementary facilities.

"First I want to thank you all for being here," Stewart said to a packed cafeteria. "It would be one of the saddest and scariest things if we lived in a community that didn't care. So thank you for being here and for showing you care. We don't want to tell you how to vote, we just want to inform you of some things that you may not know. Our 62 and 52 year old elementary schools are at the end of their life cycles. We are simply out of space. We are not keeping up with neighboring schools. Putting more money into old buildings is not cost effective. Our maintenance budget is astronomical, our fire system is archaic, we do not have a safe room and we are not up to standards for earthquakes."

Dr. Stewart talked about the high school not having the space needed for science labs and how having so many locations negatively affects the students.

"We have been the school system that has done more with less for far too long," Dr. Stewart said. "This is our first effort but it cannot and will not be our last effort. We are committed to providing the best education for our kids, your kids for years to come."

Some still did not like the proposed location of the school asking how it was decided upon.

"We did nothing without the input of the patrons," Taylor said. "That is why we held public meetings in December and January."

Taylor said the district looked at having two campuses a K-6 in one town and a 7-12 in the other. Adam Seiter of Nabholz spoke about the cost of that option. He said by the time both locations were remodeled, new buildings built and other upgrades made the cost exceeded what it would be to build a new $19.5 million combined school at a neutral location. Taylor explained that having two schools would still mean double utilities and would cost two mills more than the 9.9 mills being asked to construct the unified campus. He said at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year teachers were asked how to improve the education at BIC and the response from teachers was combine the schools. The school board agreed with the BIC faculty and staff recommendation of a unified campus. The location on the Highway 18 is neutral so it is not Monette getting a new school or Leachville, it is a new campus for both towns.

"If we built in Leachville then the people of Monette would be mad and if we built in Monette the people of Leachville would be left out," Taylor said. "That is why we decided to meet in the middle as close to the county line as we could get."

One attendee asked how the 60 acre for the 40 acre land swap came about and why the Brown family name would be on the new school's auditorium instead of Melba Strickland's who left the school land when she passed away last year. Taylor said when it was decided to locate at the county line the district started looking for land. The Brown land was at the county line plus had a county road accessing it. It is 3.5 miles from Monette and 4 miles from Leachville. In negotiations the district agreed to put the Brown name on the auditorium because it was their land and had been their homeplace for many years. Taylor said Mrs. Strickland is not being left out. The remaining land will be farmed and the money used to fund scholarships, new technology and academics for many years to come. He said the district is grateful for our contribution and will honor her the way she wanted to be honored through academics. Taylor went on to say not passing the millage would put the district back another 4-5 years.

Rudy Snider asked if the soil was appropriate for building. Snider said with the land being planted for so many years chemicals such as arsenic could be in the soil. Taylor said an environmental study would be done before construction could be started and if new dirt needed to be brought in it would be. Some asked if the site was approved by the state. Taylor explained that the building plan had been approved but the site does not require state approval. Although the building plan has been approved, the district would not know about funding until May 2015. He also explained why the district decided to ask for a millage increase now, how the state partnership funds would pay for about 56 percent of the project and how the process of applying for those funds works.

Some inquired about the cost and where the sewer for the school would come from. Taylor said both cities have been asked about the sewer system. Leachville officials said they could handle it now and Monette said it would cost $3.2 million to bring their system up to where it could handle the new school. Seiter said there is $335,000 budgeted to run the new school's sewer lines to the main of whichever municipality can support it.

"We are against it," Patty and Nan Snider said. "We are not against new construction of a school. We believe that it could be in a better location for less money."

Others were adamantly for the new school such as parent Ashley Tate, who said she would like to see better facilities in one location because it would make dropping off and picking up kids easier for parents. BIC East teacher Matthew Sills spoke about the benefits of a combined campus. Sills worked for a district that had a PreK-12 grade campus. He said a combined campus would allow BIC teachers to better use resources and allow them to work together to offer kids from both towns a better education. Sills went on to say traveling teachers lose valuable preparation time and guest speakers can't always make it to both campuses so someone is always left out. He went on to say a combined campus would help students transition better from elementary to junior high and from junior high to high school. Sills said safety would be improved because if there were a weather event or some reason the campuses would need to be locked down there would be 12 buildings to secure instead of just one. He also said it would allow for a tutoring program where high school students could help children in lower grades that are struggling.

Taylor then answered questions such as Leachville students going to have to attend Manila Schools. He said no students would be going to Manila or Riverside. Taylor said Leachville and Monette are a consolidated school district and all of its students would continue to go to BIC as they have always done. But if the district ever fell into fiscal distress the state could take over and make the students go wherever the state wanted them to go. Taylor said the district is not in danger of that now but could be in the future if there were not a millage increase. He said the district cannot keep operating at 33 mills, which it has been for 10 years and is the lowest in Craighead County. If students had to go to another district the millage there would be higher than BIC and citizens would have to pay it.

"Schools get money through taxes," Taylor said. "There is no way around that. I hate paying taxes as much as everyone else but that is how schools are funded."

Taylor explained those that rent will not pay the increase, those with homes valued at $40,000 or less will also not pay the increase and neither would those that have homestead property taxes. He also talked about the need for a self contained room for special needs students, something the BIC district cannot currently provide. Mrs. Stewart explained that when Dr. Stewart got a $21,000 grant for technology last year she had to spend that on her campus, which would have benefited everyone if there was one campus not two. To make things even the BIC district had to spend the same amount at BIC East this year so no one was left out. Safety and duplication of costs were big concerns for all those that spoke.

"Like the young man said earlier if people are saying no then they need to provide a solution," Bob Hurst Sr., Monette alderman and former BIC board member said. "I'm for eliminating extra cost and I'm for the safety and security of our children with a new safe room. People are overlooking the fact that our children in Leachville have to walk in all weather conditions outside uncovered to the cafeteria. At Monette the high school students in all weather conditions have to walk to the cafeteria. In the new building they will not have to do that. It is the same way for P.E. classes. It is valuable for both communities to go together and give our children a better education that is safer."

Leachville Police officer Lt. Chuck Brown asked if the district had concerns that the new school would be located so far away from police protection. Brown said Leachville city limits goes to the county line but the city limits of Monette doesn't and would fall short of the new school. Taylor said there could possibly be a resource officer stationed on the campus. The issue of emergency help had some parents undecided.

"I'm undecided because they are going away from law enforcement, ambulances, and fire trucks that could help in an emergency," Kristy Penix said. "Are they going to be able to get all the kids in the new safe room. I'm just here to listen to all the pros and cons."

Taylor addressed that issue again in Tuesday's meeting saying both Leachville and Monette would respond to emergencies at the new school campus.

For those that still had questions or were undecided all the speakers stayed after the meetings to talk one-on-one with individuals.

In closing both meetings Taylor encouraged people to vote regardless if it is yes or no. He did ask for a peace treaty to be declared on the yard signs. Taylor asked people to take both the yes and no signs out of their yards because the signs seem to be causing hurtful things to be said and that is not the point of the millage vote. The point is to construct a new school for the children of BIC and he encouraged citizens to not destroy friendships and cause discord in the community over a sign.

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