Several panelists representing different Fort Smith organizations spoke Thursday of why they consider a millage increase to be a worthy investment for education in Fort Smith.
A millage increase to support Fort Smith Public Schools will be on the May 22 ballot. If voters approve the increase, it will be the first time since 1987 and will raise Fort Smith’s current millage rate of 36.5 mills to 42.058 mills.
Moderator Rep. George McGill asked the panelists why education is important to them.
“I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, age 3, and education and the teachers and the community leaders that I encountered in school were the people who fostered the healthy, thriving surviving part of me,” attorney and Sebastian County Judge candidate Mosie Boyd said. “And so I would not be here if it were not for the education that I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in my life. I was very blessed to go to a small school where everybody knew each other ... Everyone was a community and nurtured each other and so I owe everything I have to my educational experience and I was privileged to go to an Ivy League college and to Georgetown and get a master’s in national security studies and to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and so I’m very interested in giving back to my community because I know how much the people who reached out and provided a little extra to me have contributed to my life. And I owe my existence to them and everything that I’m able to do. The fact that I’ve been able to make it on my own economically, the fact that I’ve been able to start my own business, and, in this great country, as a woman, to own my own business, to own my own home outright and have a little money in the bank and be able to contribute to the community — that’s why education is so important to me.”
As to why Fort Smith should invest in education, Sam Sicard of First National Bank in Fort Smith said that while he is proud of the district’s leadership, he is not proud of all of the district’s facilities.
“There’s a price of admission to being relevant in the 21st century because our children are going to be competing at a level for jobs that is far beyond even my generation. They’re going to be competing globally. They’re going to be competing with kids who are graduating in China and all over the world. It’s a truly global market now.”
Likewise, Rodney Shepard of Arvest Bank of Fort Smith said that Fort Smith has to keep up with the pace.
“It’s pay now or pay later,” he said.
Shepard added that it’s not only families that look at the public schools when they are considering moving to an area, but companies.
“The professionals — the folks in the know — have spoken,” he said of the district’s millage proposal that includes more than $120 million worth of projects.
Carilia Bonilla of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, said she sees students graduating and moving elsewhere.
The school district’s millage proposal includes more than $15.8 million in safety and security upgrades as well as several remodeling projects intended to make the schools more secure, such as enclosing open corridors on campuses.
“The idea that somebody can walk up off the street, walk into a building, not have to show an ID, not have to sign in at the office,” Autumn Minnick of Davis Operating Co. said. “There are many, many elementary schools in this district that you can get into the wings of the classroom without ever seeing the office and the risk there is extreme. And it’s not just the the idea of a school shooter — and I know that’s at the top of everyone’s mind — but I know there are situations with noncustodial parents who are not supposed to have access to their children who have got into the building, gotten into the classroom and then you have the situation where a teacher who isn’t trained, a principal who isn’t trained, has to try to get that person out of that building in front of and endangering all of those kids, so I think that’s something that we have to do and we have to do now.”
Dalton Person of Jones, Jackson & Moll PLC said that if there is anything the community can do to improve school safety, it should do it.
“If something were to happen and we were to look back and say ‘what if,’ that’s a scenario I couldn't live with. If there is anything that we can do to make our schools safer in this day in age, we got to do it.”
Likewise, McGill said, “We have an opportunity to do something. If we fail and something occurs, shame on us.”
The millage increase would cost residents about $111 more per year per $100,000 that they own in property.
“I’ve been knocking on a lot of doors and visiting with people and there are some people on a fixed income for whom an extra $10 a month is a lot of money, but I would ask us to make a smart investment because it has a lot of returns," Boyd said. "Economists talk about positive externalities and the positive externalities of investing in school include more people succeeding, doing better, having better jobs, fewer children getting in trouble, more young people graduating and getting married, more individuals and couples retiring comfortably. And those young people who are graduating from our schools and going on to UA Fort smith or local jobs have more to contribute and they’re more likely to have the vision to be entrepreneurial in the areas where we need to be competitive.”
Minnick said there are concrete effects from higher levels of education in society.
“There are lower healthcare costs, there are lower crime rates, lower poverty. I think for us here in Fort Smith — the foster care crisis we have — that’s something that could be combated with higher levels of education.”