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Little Rock voters reject plan to pay for building upgrades

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas school district set to lose millions of dollars in annual state desegregation aid could soon find itself with greater woes after voters rejected a proposal that would have helped pay for a new high school and other improvements.

Opponents of the plan to extend a property tax increase to pay for improvements said they were wary of giving the money to a district that hasn’t had an elected school board since it was dissolved in 2015 as part of a state takeover. Supporters said Little Rock School District facilities need to be repaired and updated.

Local residents’ distrust of state leadership over the district was at the center of Tuesday’s vote.

“We’ve finally come to a point where people who’ve traditionally felt disenfranchised have to come to the end of the line,” said Democratic state Sen. Joyce Elliot, who added that everyone wants better for the district’s children, but that a comprehensive, sustainable long-term plan is needed.

Under the proposal rejected by voters, state officials had asked that an existing property tax set to expire in 2033 be extended to 2047. Unofficial results show 65 percent of voters opposed the measure, which the district says would have raised $160 million for improvement projects.

Little Rock School District Superintendent Michael Poore was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. But the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that he said at an election watch party Tuesday that the rejection of the millage extension would delay the construction of the new school.

The district was at the center of the United States’ first major desegregation battle played in 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black teenagers into Central High School. The vote came as the district — the state’s largest with 25,000 students — is preparing to lose millions of dollars in annual state desegregation aid.

Gary Smith, the head of a local group that supported the tax proposal, said the district has long been mismanaged.

“I don’t think there are any winners. The kids lost, the people associated with the district lost and the city lost,” said Smith, chairman of Rebuild Our Schools.

The Arkansas Board of Education took over the nearly 25,000-student district in 2015 after it was deemed to be in academic distress.

Jim Ross, who was part of the local school board that the state dissolved, said the tax proposal was “bad finances” and that people don’t believe the state will keep its promises when it comes to the district. Ross led the group Citizens Against Taxation Without Representation that opposed the measure.

The desegregation payments that are set to end stem from a 1982 lawsuit the district filed against the state and its neighboring districts, alleging state policies were still creating racial imbalance despite changes made since 1957. To settle the lawsuit, Arkansas agreed in 1989 to give the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County special school districts extra money for magnet schools and allowing student transfers. The payments have totaled nearly $70 million annually.

A judge signed an order in 2014 to halt payments to the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts by June 30, 2018. The judge approved the settlement only after receiving assurances from the districts that they had plans for after the money runs out. Under the settlement, funds in the final year have to be used to improve district facilities.

Citizens Against Taxation Without Representation member Samantha Toro said she voted against the measure because she wasn’t confident the state would use the money properly. But she’s also concerned about what happens when the payments stop.

“How are we going to take out such a significant debt if we don’t know what our future enrollment looks like, whether we’ll have to close more schools or who will be in control of the district in the next couple of years?” Toro said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters that he doesn’t necessarily think the district’s financial situation makes it more difficult to be returned to local control.

“I want to see more families making choices and saying we have confidence in the direction of the Little Rock School District and its future, so it can be competitive and have the strongest educational performance,” Hutchinson said at a news conference Wednesday. “I thought the millage vote was important for that purpose, but there’s other ways for to accomplish that objective.”

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