The Searcy School District at least temporarily dropping its mask mandate late last week due to a reduction in the area’s risk level is an “opportunity to kind of get some semblance of normality back,” according to Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart.
The decision follows the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement reporting that the district is in the “green” level, which indicates that there are 10 to 19 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents for a 14-day period. The mask requirement was rescinded by Hart for indoors and on buses, and face coverings for students and staff members are optional.
“We made that decision Thursday afternoon,” Hart said. “The resolution that the board passed [Aug. 12] gave me the ability to make that determination. I consulted them [the School Board] and said, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing; here’s where we are headed,’ and if they had any reservations, I asked them to share them with me.
“I think everybody is pleased with the idea that [COVID-19] cases are down. ... I just hope it continues to stay that way.”
The school district was not on the Arkansas Department of Education’s school report for COVID-19 on Thursday. The biweekly list includes all school districts with five or more active cases.
Searcy was back on the list Monday with five active cases and 182 cumulative.
“One of the biggest concerns we had is quarantines,” Hart said. “If there is a positive case in a classroom, if everyone is not wearing a mask then we’re subject to having quite a few quarantines, and that’s not our rules, that’s the Department of Health.”
According to the district, 2,050 students have been kept out of quarantine since school started because of the district’s mask mandate.
Some students and teachers Hart said he talked to said they are going to continue to wear their masks. “It’s just like everything else in the world today, it’s about at 50-50 probably.”
The next School Board meeting will be Oct. 27, and Hart said he “will probably have a resolution so we can formalize the data that we are going to be using. ACHI has talked about – but not made the date known yet but at some point – that data may go away, so we want to make sure we have some pretty good sound and robust data for any decisions moving forward.”
Hart said the district will release information every week where its in relation to the next week in regard to COVID-19. He said this was expected to be posted on Friday afternoons between noon and 3 p.m.
In the latest communication, last Thursday, from ACHI, 40 Arkansas public school districts have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, down from 77 the previous week.
The health policy center also said that for the third week in a row, the number of school districts with COVID-19 vaccination rates of at least 50 percent remained at five: Bentonville 53 percent, Cleveland County 53 percent, Fountain Lake 52 percent, Magnet Cove 52 percent and Pulaski County Special School District 51 percent.
Among the 40 districts with 14-day infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents, none have rates of 100 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents, down from seven the week prior, according to Arkansas Department of Health data obtained last Monday.
On the ACHI map of Arkansas school districts, a district with 50 to 99 new known infections per 10,000 residents is shaded red and a district with 100 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents is shaded purple. The color-shading of a district is based on infections among community residents living within the geographical boundaries of each school district and not on cases among school employees and students.
The White County Central School District reported on its Facebook page that its ACHI zone for COVID has dropped to yellow and it is also mask optional for this week. It has not been on the Department of Health’s biweekly school report since Sept. 9
Beebe, Bald Knob and Bradford are still under a mask mandate. Masks are optional at Rose Bud, Riverview and Pangburn.
Monday’s school report from the Department of Health showed Beebe with 14 active cases (86 cumulative), Pangburn with 14 (69 cumulative) and Riverview with 6 (45 cumulative).
Brandon Martin’s children are practically just getting started in the White County Central School District, and he’s hoping to “get involved” with decisions that the district makes by becoming a member of the School Board.
Martin, 33, is running against White County Central School Board incumbent Larry Stevens in the Nov. 2 school board election. Early voting begins Oct. 26 at the White County Clerk’s Office, 315 N. Spruce St., and runs from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays through Nov. 1.
Election day voting will take place from 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. in the school district’s auditorium.
Martin was born in Waldron, but he said when he was in the fifth grade, his moved into the White County Central School District. “My father’s parents and mother’s parents are both from the area. We moved back home when we moved here.”
Martin graduated from White County Central High School in 2006. He and his wife, Lauren, have a son, Braylen, in the first grade in the district and another son, William, who will be in preschool next year.
“I have grown up doing leadership stuff my whole life and have been heavily involved in FFA [ Future Farmers of America] and 4-H, and that’s just kind of been leadership organizations, and I just know that if I want to make a difference in the community, I better get involved and with my kids coming up in school,” Martin said. “I really want to be involved in school decisions and being a part of that for them.”
Asked if the passage of a 2-mill property tax increase in September made this an exciting time for those in the district like him, Martin said “absolutely.”
The debt service mills passed by 72.77 percent of the voters (171) were being sought so that “a $9,5200,000 refunding and construction bond issue could provide approximately $5,800,000 to be used for constructing, refurbishing, remodeling and equipping school facilities,” according to a pamphlet from the district that promoted the election.
Superintendent Dean Stanley has said the millage would allow the district to do capital improvements such as a more-that-20,000-square foot classroom building, a more-than-8,000 square foot area for cafeteria dining, a water treatment facility to help with sewer problems, new parking at the high school at the north end of the campus and some athletic improvements, including a new soccer field and a new softball field and an upgrade on the baseball field, a track and some concession and restroom areas.
“The school is kind of the center of the community up here,” Martin said. “There’s really no other business or anything around this community. The community is based on the school and I think that it’s something the community can really get behind of and be proud of; to have school facilities like this are going to be second to none, especially with my kids coming up and they will have a brand-new school to go in.”
Concerning the projects that will done with the passage of the millage, Martin said it is not just the buildings. “They actually got several more projects going with the solar panels they are putting up and the waste treatment facility. They’ve got several stuff going that’s really neat to be part of and on the forefront.”
The School Board also will be tackling zoning for its positions based on the district’s increased minority numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census.
“I have talked to a few board members. I really think having the two at-large members would be something I would personally like myself,” Martin said. “There can be two people who would be great candidates that are real close to each other [locationwise]. I know one School Board member lives right across the road from me and does a great job, too, and I’d hate for both of us not to be on the board if we both really want to and there would be no other candidates to not have some at large.”
Other issues the board is dealing with or will have to deal with have included COVID-19 and face masks, which the district made optional this week due to a decline in cases in the area, and Martin said “there’s two sides to that debate, so you’re not going to make everybody happy on it.”
“You are going to have some people upset on it, either way,” he said. “You just got to buckle down to listen to people and if you are on the board, I think you should listen to some concerns from the community and what people say, but also when it comes down it, you have to do what you think is right for the kids.”
When it comes to financial matters for the district, Martin said Stanley is “going to do his research and put out his best thought on the situation and be fiscally responsible and not put the school district in a position they can’t overcome, and I think he has done a pretty good job of that.”
Martin said Stanley was middle school principal when he moved into the district when he was in fifth grade. “His wife, Debbie, was actually my homeroom teacher.”
Martin recognizes that some might consider him young for the position, but “I do have some experience. I am on the Farm Bureau board. I’m a member of the Arkansas Hereford Association; I’m on the board.
“I farm full time. Judsonia is my address. I’m just 2 miles north of the school.”
White County Central School Board member Larry Stevens’ son, Deklan, is a senior at the high school, but although his son is heading toward graduation, Stevens said “I am not just running [for re-election] because my kid is there.”
Stevens, who has been a member of the White County Central School Board for 10 years, serving two five-year terms, is trying to get re-elected Nov. 2 against challenger Brandon Martin. Early voting begins Oct. 26 at the White County Clerk’s Office, 315 N. Spruce St., and runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Voting on election day will be in the school district’s auditorium from 7:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Stevens, a 1987 graduate of White County Central High School, said he started running for the School Board because “I just care about the school, the district; this is my community. I owned my own business and I just felt I was able to have the time to do that and wanted to be able to give back to my school and my community.”
He said with White County Central voters having just passed a 2-mill property tax increase for improvements and changes to the school district, “I really want to be a part of this next year to try to get things going good with this building project.”
“We’re fixing to spend somewhere around 10 to 12 million dollars on building projects and things at the school and I have over 35 years’ experience in building,” Stevens said. “I am a licensed contractor. I have owned a cabinet shop and I have done all these things.”
Stevens said it is hard to say when ground will be broken on the new projects that will take place thanks to the passage of the millage. He said the next board meeting would be his last if he were to lose the election.
“I want to do one more year on this board,” Stevens said. “The main deal is this building project right here and I do have a lot of experience with this stuff.”
He said “a lot of people don’t know that” this election concerns only a one-year term.
“Next year, all five board members are coming off and the way I understand, if we decided [during rezoning] to go with five board members like we have, we will have five zones,” he said. “We’ll have five board members and one will run for a five-year term, one will be running for a four-year term, one will be running for a three-year term is the way I understand it because each year we are going to have to have one coming on, one coming off, like we’ve been doing.”
The board is having to rezone because its minority 2020 U.S. Census numbers were above a 10 percent threshold established by Arkansas Code Annotated 6-13-631.
Stevens said the board has hired an independent group to study how the board is set up. He said the board has not yet voted on its makeup regarding zones. Superintendent Dean Stanley said rezoning is not expected to be addressed at Thursday’s meeting.
Stevens also addressed challenges when COVID-19 spiked this summer and the board passed a mask mandate to begin this school year, saying he hasn’t seen a lot of complaints.
“We’ve got a good school. Things have been going good, growing,” he said. “We have had some complaints over the mask mandate but overall, I have had a lot of support being on the board. We have had a lot of good things happening for the school with it growing.”
44,407,740 in United States
713,770 in United States (4,855,635 worldwide)
503,089 cumulative cases, 8,132 deaths; 12,937 cases in White County, including 161 active, and 187 deaths as of 3:30 p.m. Monday
Sources: Johns Hopkins University Centers for System Science and Engineering and Arkansas Dept. of Health
The Searcy Airport Commission was hoping last week to be awarded $1.1 million in “discretionary” funding from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to replace its taxiway lighting.
“As you all are aware there is discretionary revenue that sometimes if an airport doesn’t spend all of their money, they will reallocate that money to airports that want it,” Searcy Municipal Airport Manager Roger Pearson said. “We’ve made it known, as you all know, that we want it and we have asked for some time now, ‘Please, keep us in mind. Please keep us in mind.’”
Pearson said the coordinator of the funding has done a good job keeping the Searcy airport in mind, and he had hoped to know something about the $1.1 million by Thursday. However, as of Friday, nothing had been heard. (The coordinator said there was about a 50 percent chance that Searcy would receive it, Pearson said.)
The taxiway lighting was discussed as part of the airport’s five-year capital improvement plan, which, Pearson said, is done every year because “the FAA wants to know where we are at and what we are doing. They can help us make a plan.”
The airport commissioners were given a packet that showed taxiway lighting with an estimated cost of $1.7 million for 2023.
“I can’t tell you if that is too much or too little or not; that is the engineer’s estimate at what it would cost to replace our taxiway lighting,” Pearson said. “What I do know is that the city of Searcy cannot afford that and what I am grateful for is that we get $150,000 a year in entitlement money.”
He said the entitlement money could be spent every year or saved for more expensive projects. “We use it for our more expensive projects rather than using it every year,” he said. “In 2023, we’ll have banked $600,000 of entitlement money, but what you see when you take $600,000 from $1.7 million is you still got $1.1 million.”
He said although the potential funding from the FFA is “still people’s money, it’s tax money but it is not money out of the local coffers, it’s federal money.”
Referencing 2024 in the capital improvement plan, Pearson said that is when banking will start for the runway lighting, and that will be done through 2025 and 2026. Then, “hopefully by 2026, we can have had enough drainage projects and crack sealing projects that our subsurface will be in a good enough shape that we can start allocating for a rehab on our runway.”
Pearson said in 2024-2026, he knows prices will change but then the airport will move on to the runway, trying to get it upgraded to LED lighting also.
By 2027, it will be past time for asphalt on the runway, Pearson said. “So when we say runway rehab, we need the asphalt on the runway. That’s going to be another one of those projects that $600,000 will not cover because you are essentially doing 4 miles of regular roadway at 100 feet wide, so it’s expensive. So we will probably start this process of trying to get discretionary revenue all over again and trying to get that done.
Airport Commissioner Wiley Blansett said, “Those are all really good projects and projects that are needed for sure and a major upgrade. If you have seen the LED lighting at an airport, you know they look awesome. They show up really well, you can see them a long way off and it’s really worthwhile.”