Schools Daze

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Fayetteville philanthropist Crystal Britches didn’t understand. Not my newspaper nor the other one nor any TV station quoted her remarks at a public hearing held a month ago by the Future of Fayetteville High School Select Committee II. Maybe she showed up at the wrong meeting — was it the Future of Fayetteville High School Select Committee I? Maybe the Deselected Committee, or the alumni’s Fayetteville High School Any Old Goat Committee, but that one is up to CXXXIV.

The school’s current building, adjacent to the University of Arkansas, is overcrowded with some 1,900 students. Crystal, and perhaps other people, thought the solution was obvious, build a second high school. North Little Rock, population 58,896 (U.S. Census, 2006) has two, and for 40 years so has Fort Smith, 83,461. If you’re wondering, Rogers has 52,181 people and Bentonville 32,049.

“Rival Springdale just added a second high school,” Crystal reminded me. She waited a month before contacting Brick, hoping her speech would by now have shown up on the cable local channel. “Springdale’s population is 63,082. The Rogers and Bentonville school districts have been reported to be studying the construction of second secondary schools. These three communities are not talking about any apparent loss of academic quality or sport conference rank, from halving the student body. And you know how rivalrous they are.”

“Fayetteville, though no precise poll has been conducted, is said to want only one high school, a mega one,” I told her. She knew this of course. It’s reported over and over again; any Internet news search using “Fayetteville AR high school” will give you lots of copy. Only a reporter for a non-local weekly has asked the two-campus question. Crystal and I sat on a bench at the downtown Square. It was a Tuesday, and the Farmers Market had few booths and few customers, because of the earliness of the season (few crops yet ripe) and all the rain. Ms. Britches had walked here, and due to the threatening weather wore the clear-plastic rain gear that provides her name.

The one-school concept for the teenage children of Fayetteville’s 68,726 overall population has two sides. Incredibly, each includes some of the city’s and university’s best. Each has Web sites. The build-from-scratch group is Students First. The other wants to renovate and expand on or near the current campus, Build Smart.

“I must’ve been at the wrong sessions. They were old goats like me, and these two organizations’ members are mostly parent age. They can move and shake. Want to hear what I said?” Crystal asked with a quiet smile, and of course I did.

“Three thousand secondary students for Fayetteville within a few years is the prediction. Doesn’t it seem likely, even with a recession? The proof Fayetteville seems to be growing as fast as the other three cities is that all of them have lots of land cleared and otherwise torn up. Work at most is at a snail’s pace due to the economy, but we’ll be fine soon. So we need two 1,500-student campuses, not one super-sized one. Even a thousand-pupil school is big enough to offer specialized college-prep classes and all the popular sports you could shake a pompom at.

“The second school could be at the site Students First raves about. It’s on the same side of town as FHS, though, toward the south and the west. A second campus perhaps should be to the north and east. The original campus? Well, Build Smart still would have its work cut out selling the renovation, expansion and-or replacement.

“Let’s talk taxes. My step-up-to-two-Highs proposal will need more mills. The single-school concepts each have an estimate. Ah, here they are. Building from scratch on a new site is $92.4 million, and fixing up and adding onto FHS is $73.4 million. They’re going to need more money from voters, too. I don’t know how good their estimates are, and we’ll need to figure out if having two smaller schools, one already standing, is in the same fiscal ballpark.”

“No Northwest Arkansas city has had an easy time in years with property tax votes; nearly all have lost. How can the district or either of these action committees think they can sell citizens on the notion that Fayetteville is not growing and therefore doesn’t need two separate schools with smaller class sizes?

“Taxes I thought would get them, but they stared at me, so I end with this: What about the quality of education? What about serving the newer, outlying neighborhoods? Let’s think positive. Let’s think ahead. I swear on my crystal britches you over-educated people are twee dingo barkers.”

“Crystal,” I said with my own smile, “you can’t call people an Australian slur, especially well-meaning folks. They might not understand. You’re Arkie, not Aussie. And people like to think that name-calling isn’t democratic.”

Crystal nodded, with rue. “Yes, the group I talked to cheered me. They thought I said free bingo markers.”

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