Sunday, April 27, 2008

Field of Dreamers

It was in no way a scientific sample, but it was enough to convince me that the Future of Fayetteville High School Select Committee 2 overlooked one essential factor when choosing and recommending the site for a 21st century high school. They ignored public opinion, the key element in passing a millage increase necessary to build a world-class high school anywhere. That was as presumptuous as it was foolish, but it is an error likely to be repeated by the School Board.

I heard discussions and nearly unanimous agreement by those who offered an opinion everywhere I went yesterday -- at the Farmers' Market on the square, on Dickson Street during Springfest, at the Red-White game in Razorback Stadium, and back to Dickson Street for music. Some thought that the Select Committee was the School Board and that it had already made a final decision, others had been following the issue more closely. Only two people among the dozens I encountered expressed any interest in voting to increase their property taxes to build a new high school on Morningside Drive, and not one thought a millage increase would be approved by voters.

It isn't just distrust of the current Board President and Superintendent, although I heard plenty of that. My Cowbird friends and acquaintances were disappointed by rejection of the Deane Solomon site. In their opinion, there were far fewer opportunities for development anywhere near Morningside, and the existing neighborhoods and other factors meant the profit margins would be much lower. Neither their prospects nor the committee's criteria appeared to be enough to move them.

The UA faculty were strongly in support of building a new high school on the current centrally-located campus. One of the professors I talked with said Morningside would be a good location for a second high school sometime in the distant future, but there was no enthusiasm for moving the high school there now. These are people who usually vote in school elections and usually support millage increases. I didn't hear much yesterday that would indicate they could be counted on to support a move.

Then there is a large group in our community who always vote against any tax increase, including any property tax hike for better schools and public education or the public library. I did not engage as many of this segment as I know lurk on the voter rolls, but we all know they are there and that they constitute at least 40% of those who turn out for any millage election.

The most surprising thing I heard was from college students, who never vote in school elections, owning no property and having no children in school. They have figured out that they are going to get screwed if the University buys the current high school property, because it will require another significant tuition increase with absolutely no benefit to them. They suspect that the UA bigwigs will announce their intentions during the summer when no students are around to protest, but they will be prepared for the millage election with plans for a voter registration drive, an educational email campaign, Facebook and MySpace networking, and organizing absentee voting and early voting rides to the polls.

Even if the School Board sells the Deane Solomon property, rather than buying more acreage out there as now proposed, and even if they sell the current campus to the University or other real estate developers, they will still be more than $50 million short of what they'll need to build a new high school on Huntsville Road and Morningside Drive. That means they'll need voter approval for a property tax increase of 4 or 5 mills to finance construction. No way that's going to happen.

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