Citizens in Support of the Fort Smith Public Schools Millage Increase
A Citizen’s Committee of almost 60 people who met together to help form the Vision 2023 five-year plan and then, recommend action to make that strategic plan become a reality are now campaigning for a millage increase.
To encourage voters to pass the millage increase measure at a May 22 election, the group is making speeches, placing yard signs all over town, interacting on social media, holding marches and button-holding potential voters. Supporters of the millage increase range from students of voting age to young adult, Fort Smith Public School alumni to retirees. We spoke with four of these advocates.
“I think if Fort Smith wants to be a vibrant, thriving future-oriented community that excellent public schools have to be a part of that.”
– Ken Wallace, retired
Wallace is hoping to influence other retirees and grandparents to vote for the school millage increase.
“I think people that are older and retired and think ‘well I’ve done my part, now somebody else needs to step up,’ – they need to think about stepping up for their grandchildren and for maintaining this community that allowed them to live a good life here and get a good education here,”?he said.
As a volunteer, Wallace served as one of the Citizens Committee members who developed the recommendation to the school board that a millage should be proposed. The experience, he said, “was really interesting. I was impressed with the process.”
We have three children that went through public school here and had good educations. We not only want to maintain that but we want to take the schools from being a good public school system to a premier public school system,” he explained. The slight rise in his property tax that will result if the millage is passed will be worthwhile to him and to his wife, he added. The Wallaces find a value beyond dollars in a community that maintains good public schools.
“I don’t look on this millage as being a tax as much as being an investment in Fort Smith. It’s a small amount investing in our city and in our children who will be our future leaders.”
Wallace approves of the strategic goal of giving students the opportunity to prepare for career or college before graduation.
“One of the things that has excited me is that Dr. Brubaker has a strong background in what we used to call vocational education. I really like his concept that when kids graduate they either have a head start in college or they have a technical certificate where they can go out and get a good job and start making money and make the workforce of this area better. It’s very practical,” he said.
Throughout the weeks approaching the May 22 election, Wallace said he and the Friends of Fort Smith Public Schools plans to do door-to-door canvasing, make phone calls and speak up to friends and colleagues.
“I want our children to know that their community wants to invest in their opportunity to come back here and thrive.”
– Elizabeth Coleman Voris, parent
Elizabeth Voris, 33, and her 35-year-old husband Justin, a physician, have moved eight times since marrying. They have lived in Little Rock, Michigan and Oklahoma City and even a foreign country and still chose to move back to Fort Smith because it is “home.” But that could change.
“If this millage doesn’t pass, I don’t see what is keeping us here – because I want what is best for my kids. Passing this millage is going to be the best thing for my kids. I can’t imagine them in a gym, about eight years from now, that my dad was in,” she said. She knows that other young families will base major life decisions on what they feel is best for their children, too.
Voris loves the nostalgia of enjoying that her elementary school, Woods, is much the same as when she attended. She likes that the oldest of their three children, who is 8, goes to the same school. “I really enjoy being able to serve and volunteer in the school I?went to,” she said. But she recognizes that progress means change.
Voris said the experience of serving on the Citizens Committee and reaching consensus on a millage proposal showed her that every participant could not get everything they personally wanted. But they came to an agreement by prioritizing the greatest needs.
“I don’t agree with everything – all the plans we agreed upon are not what I?specifically would have pinpointed, but I’m supporting it, because there are other things that are important that are going to benefit my children,” she explained.
Voters can learn everything the citizen volunteers learned in developing the proposal for using the millage increase, she said. “This hasn’t been chosen in a closed meeting with a few people; it isn’t an executive decision.” All of that process can be seen and read online at fortsmithschools.org, even now, she pointed out.
“What I love about this proposal is that every school is going to be touched,” she said. “Like all parents, I’m thinking first about my kids and want the best for them. But this process made my faith in Fort Smith go up even higher because I saw so many people in this process – even those who don’t have kids in school – who want to make things better.”
“If a business looks to come here, they want to know if there is a pipeline of folks that are trained and educated to come to work with them after high school or after higher ed.”
– Rodney Shepherd, bank executive
From his own experience, Rodney Shepherd knows that anytime someone travels, “they’re interviewing a town, in a way.”
For his career, the Arvest Bank Fort Smith president and CEO relocated from here to Springfield, Mo., in 2011. He recalls forming his impressions of the city. “My first impressions were ‘bigger, a lot like Fort Smith, no big buildings, very clean,’” he said. But one factor was the most important to their family. “When it was time to get out of the temporary apartment, we had to pick where to live and where our daughter was going to go to school. We had to choose where we wanted her to go to junior high and high school. When folks look at this community, the schools are a big consideration.”
Any visitor could be “interviewing” us, he said. “You never know when someone will have to relocate or come back to conduct business or maybe make a recommendation to host something here.”
A visitor or potential business investor will judge our town by how it treats its schools, he added. “I’m sure there are a lot of us who would raise our hands and say ‘I want our school district to have a facility like’ ... just pick any one of the schools in our region we go to for events.”
Shepherd commended Jason Green of ABB/Baldor for keeping education for careers a high priority in the process of proposing the usages of the millage.
“The new career and tech center fills that need. We have a wonderful system with WATC, but we need even more of the key disciplines of IT and healthcare and for lead employees in manufacturing,” he said.
New, larger gyms for each high school please him for several reasons, such as hosting regional events. “The gyms and event spaces are one of the real treats for our community – all the students will be able attend one assembly. In addition to the district being able to use the space for a host of things, there’s the opportunity for the community to do a lot.”
“My friends who are teachers don’t care that this millage increase is not about them or a pay raise. It’s all about the students."
– Cathy Williams, retired educator
Cathy Williams has more direct experience than many volunteers who participated in forming and supporting this proposed millage increase. She retired seven years ago from a long-time administrative role with the Fort Smith Public School District in which she focused on making connections between the business community and schools in Fort Smith’s thriving Partners in Education program. She also helped to coordinate career-focused programs such as WATC, a technology and career training opportunity offering early college credit in tech subjects.
As an advocate campaigning to pass the millage, she passes on the thoughts of her colleagues – active teachers.
“You know, the teachers I talked with pay taxes, too, and they are willing, “They see the proposed actions as academic improvements.” That’s what teachers care about, she said.
External things such as improving school safety, moving 9th-graders to high school and other actions are seen by teachers as a chance for them to give students a better education inside the classroom, inside each individual student’s mind, Williams explained.
“The specific vision of this millage will take us to a progressive level of education for our students,” she said. “Ultimately, it is about them.”
Williams likes the priorities this proposal places on readying students to graduate with a skill set that helps them in the real world.
“What we hear from business and industry now is what we were preaching years ago,” she said.
“Four years of college is great but if you don’t have a career plan, college is a very expensive exploration,”?she said. The district is more adept at encouraging students to identify career plans. She strongly approves of giving students at chance at earning college credit and/or technical certifications in high school.
Another reflection Williams shared as a retiree whose own children graduated here is the idea that 30 years is too long a time to have gone without the passage of a millage increase.
“We’re almost a generation here, my age, who paid less than up-to-date millages,”?in her view, she said. “We’re parents of some kids that have done pretty darn well with their educations. We may owe our district.”
This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.