As the Good Book says, "... small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life," or in this case, to the new high school -- but no one wants to pay for widening it.
At Monday night's four-hour, 15-minute City Council meeting, Eureka Springs Superintendent Curtis Turner and members of the school board pleaded their case to the city to pay for widening and re-surfacing 820 feet of city street that allows access to the new Eureka Springs High School, scheduled to begin classes in January.
The gist of the problem is this: Although both school district and city agree that the section of road is too narrow for two-way bus traffic -- 17 feet rather than the 20+ necessary -- the school district has said it cannot, because of a 2004 Arkansas Attorney General opinion, use state tax funds meant for the district to widen and/or re-pave that road.
In opinion 2004-118, then-Attorney General Mike Beebe wrote that Article 14, Section 2, of the Arkansas Constitution forbids the use of local school tax money for anything other than the purpose for which it was levied. And under Amendment 74 to the Constitution, Beebe wrote, local school tax revenue is for maintenance and operation of schools.
The city's opinion is that the project has been under way for years, and the issue of the road should have been dealt with long ago without expecting the city to pony up the money at the last minute.
Joy says city was up front with district
According to former Mayor Dani Joy, who was in office at the time, the city had explained to the school district at the time that Eureka Springs was and is under a state mandate to apply water, sewer and street funds toward projects already budgeted, and the school district was aware of this.
"There is and has been a five-year plan in place since I was in office which sets $300,000 - 500,000 per year toward those issues," said Joy in an exclusive interview with the Citizen. "It's already designated. And although the school district did pay approximately $30,000 in permit fees to the city, the city also waived the $80,000 impact fees associated with the new school. So for a councilman to suggest that 'it's a wash' simply to return that $30,000 to the school district to widen the road is inaccurate; that money is needed elsewhere."
Although at the meeting it was mentioned that many people had changed roles since then -- a new mayor, a new superintendent, a largely new school board, new city council members -- there have been people in place who knew the situation, Joy said.
"The only person who called me for these details was Butch Berry," she said. Berry is currently a member of City Council.
"The mayor and the city have done the only thing they could in this situation," Joy said. "The school board has had four years to figure all this out and has not done so."
Joy added that the city had offered to help with equipment for the project, but not funding. "We told them in the beginning this would be an issue," she said. "The city is not the bad guy here, and for anyone to suggest we don't care about the safety of our children is ludicrous. This is expensive hindsight on their part. The city represents the people of Eureka Springs, and they are being taxed twice for this project."
School suggestes widening shoulders now, paving next year
At the meeting, Turner suggested the city pay for widening the shoulders of the current road with the idea of paving it next year when the weather and the new city budget permit this happening.
Additionally, a fire hydrant on the corner of Lake Lucerne Road near the new high school is too close to the road to allow buses to make the turn and will have to be moved. Both the city and the school district indicated that it would in fact be moved.
"I don't know the protocol for getting something done on an emergency basis, but time is of the essence," Turner said. "We're getting the new parking lot paved starting now, and I don't think it would be very difficult for them to go ahead and do the road now. I know you're hit with a lot of things, but our new school is a showplace for our community. So I ask you to pass a resolution to approve both the temporary solution as well as a permanent fix, including new asphalt this spring."
Alderman Karen Lindblad said she had received numerous calls from constitutents saying they had a problem with the fact the school district as a whole had agreed to building the new school in its present location, but that the city alone is being asked to re-pave and widen the road.
Turner responded he felt the district had acted appropriately in building the new school and improving the site, and said that "when the Attorney General's office and the state Board of Education tell me that under no circumstances can we spend state money to work on this road, I take their word for it."
Alderman Ken Pownall said he himself had been in discussions early on in which the city had told the school it could not pay for the road expansion. "I am upset with anyone who has the audacity to say something was pulled on them," he said.
According to ES High School Principal Karen Lavender, the current enrollment of the high school is around 193 students, with 40 student drivers and 27 faculty drivers.
DeVito, Berry urge city to go forward
Alderman James DeVito spoke in support of the city paying for the project. "This school is a big investment for our community," he said. "Lots of people earn their salaries there. Taxes are generated. The salient point here is we've already collected enough from them just in fees to pay for this. To me it's a wash. It's a matter of health and safety. Our primary function as a governing body is health and safety, and for us to quibble over what in our budget is a relatively small amount of money, is wrong. We've got reserves. It won't affect any of that. I'm proud of what the school district's done. I don't see any issue involved here. This is something we need to go forward with, with haste. We're running out of time."
Alderman Lany Ballance suggested making Lake Lucerne Road one-way until a more long-term solution could be found.
Berry said he was not happy with the situation. "I remember at that meeting we asked about the improvements, and we were told we didn't have the money, and the school was going to take care of it. Since then I understand we've discovered the school can't do that. I understand that. But the engineering firm involved should've known the school board couldn't spend the money that way. It appears to me the city is going to have to bite the bullet and do this."
In the end, Berry made a motion to have the public works director in conjunction with the school create specifications documents for improvement of 820 feet of Lake Lucerne Road for widening and paving, creating an ordinance to that effect, seeking a contractor and waiving bids in the interest of time. Turner brought two bids to the board for consideration at the beginning of the meeting, both within $400 of the roughly $29,000 he suggested would cover the work.
The council passed the motion 5-1; Ballance had left early due to illness and Lindblad voted against.