PCSSD board member Wendy Potter voted no on renewal of Pulaski County millage

Message sent on PCSSD’s spending

Submitted photo of Wendy Potter, Pulaski County Special School District Zone 5 candidate. Photo courtesy of Wendy Potter.
Submitted photo of Wendy Potter, Pulaski County Special School District Zone 5 candidate. Photo courtesy of Wendy Potter.

When only one ballot is marked and counted in an "election by candidate" in an Arkansas school election, it can be evident how the singular candidate voted.

Wendy Potter of Maumelle, recently reelected without any opposition to the Zone 5 seat on the School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District, voted for herself for the board seat. At the same time, Potter voted against her district's 40.7-mill property tax rate that was on her ballot.

An "election by candidate" is a relatively new feature permitted by Arkansas Code Annotated 6-14-102(c). A candidate running unopposed for election is the sole voter. There is no absentee or early voting and no polling places open on election day in such an election, which saves a district election-related costs.

The nearly 12,000-student Pulaski Special district had proposed no change in its tax rate but put the millage rate on the ballot as it is legally required to do.

Article 14, Section 3, of the Arkansas Constitution calls for districts to include a tax rate on the ballot every year. If no change in a tax rate is proposed, then a district asks voters to vote on the current tax rate. In that case, no matter what voters decide, the millage rate will remain at the level last approved by voters.

That is 40.7 mills in the Pulaski County Special School District.

The vote totals on an unchanged millage rate -- favorable or not -- can be seen as a gauge of public satisfaction with a school district.

Potter used her vote on the millage rate to send a message, she said.

"My millage vote was all about PCSSD's spending practices and financial management," Potter said this past week.

"Poor tone at the top," she said about the district's leadership, and she cited "Millions spent on out-of-state travel including Caesar's Palace and Disney World."

Potter also highlighted the district's declining end-of-year balances, which she said dropped from $23 million four years ago to a projected $12.5 million at the end of this school year. She questioned the drawing down of those reserves "despite receiving huge windfalls, including $39.6 million" in federal covid relief money and more than $5 million in new property tax revenues.

She said the district's credit outlook from Moody's investment rating service has been downgraded from "stable" to "negative," which is described as "a high likelihood of a downward rating revision in the near-to-medium term."

"There is a chronic cash-flow problem," Potter continued. That resulted in the district's seeking a two-month advance on tax collections. And there is an anticipated end-of-year debt in the district's food service program that the district will have to cover out of regular operating funds. The district's business manager has been "sidelined from personnel budgeting meetings -- a sign of dysfunction," she said.

"So, I decided to send a small message," Potter said. "My vote doesn't change the millage rate but I think it's important for the public to understand that PCSSD has board members who don't want to continue doing business as usual."

Charles McNulty, superintendent of the school district, said Friday that Potter's vote is evidence of "local democracy at work" and, while he respects the passion she has for her convictions and her opinions, he doesn't always share them.

On the travel costs, McNulty says the district's expenditure was closer to half a million dollars than to the millions cited by Potter. He said the trips for district staff members to distant locations were for improving student learning.

"So, we send our professionals -- our teachers -- to professional development, we build capacity," he said. "It is rigorous and we expect it to become part of our school improvement planning process. We're here to educate and we're here to make sure our young people get opportunities post-[enrollment in] PCSSD."

McNulty said there is evidence of success: About 60% of his district schools received state-applied letter grades of A, B or C. That doubled the percentage in the previous year, he said. The number of F-graded schools dropped from three to one. The district's graduating class of 2023 received $21.7 million in scholarships.

Additionally, the district anticipates having five schools being named 2024 Best Schools by U.S. News and World Report, McNulty said.

In regard to the spending of reserves, McNulty said the district has done so just as other districts have done in recent years, but that efforts are being made to build the reserves back to $16 million at the end of the 2024-25 school year.

That's being conservative so as to be prepared for unexpected costs, he said, offering as an example of such a cost the deficit in the district's school meal program.

He attributed the debt, at least in part, to efforts to bar the shaming of students who can't pay for school meals. Districts, rightfully, McNulty said, are prohibited from taking actions that would embarrass students, but that makes it difficult for Pulaski County Special and other school districts to collect school meal debt.

ELSEWHERE

In North Little Rock, where an "election by candidate" was held to fill the Zone 4 seat, incumbent board member Angela Person-West voted for her own reelection. She also voted for the district's 48.3-mill property tax rate in the nearly 8,000-student district.

The results of the Nov. 14 school elections in Pulaski County -- including somewhat more traditional elections in the Little Rock School District -- came to light when the vote outcomes were certified -- or made official -- by the three-member Pulaski County Election Commission at its meeting last week.

The Pulaski County Special district's 40.7 mill tax rate and North Little Rock's 46. 3 mill tax rate generate millions of dollars annually to go toward the operations of the school districts, including payment of employee salaries, utility bills, purchase of instructional materials and the construction and maintenance of school buildings.

Public schools in Arkansas are largely financed by a combination of locally generated tax revenue and state aid to ensure that there is a state-set minimum amount of money available per student. This year that minimum per student funding is $7,618.