Editor’s Note: Each year, the Times Record newsroom staff votes on the Top 10 local stories of the year. The voter-approved millage rate increase for the Fort Smith School District is the No. 1 story.

2018 has been a busy year for the Fort Smith School District. Since the district introduced its Vision 2023 plan last year, Fort Smith voters approved a millage rate increase to go toward district improvements.

The millage passed May 22 with 61.7 percent of voters in favor and 38.3 percent against, according to the Sebastian County Clerk’s Office. The vote propelled Fort Smith’s millage rate from 36.5 mills to 42.058 mills; the city was once the lowest in the county but is now the highest.

It was the first time in more than 30 years the district had a millage increase, and it plans on putting more than $120 million into projects.

Fort Smith Superintendent Doug Brubaker developed a collaborative group to prioritize the district’s needs in areas such as academics, equity, facilities and career planning. This was turned into Vision 2023, a five-year strategic plan.

Once the initiative was approved, another volunteer group looked at the needs and determined what could justify a millage increase. The original request was for an increase of 6.888 mills, but the Fort Smith Board of Education asked for it to be reduced.

“We want to thank the Fort Smith and Barling communities for their support of Fort Smith Public Schools and the students we serve,” Brubaker said in a press release after the increase was approved. “We also are grateful for the efforts of so many to get the word out about this ballot question. I am committed to ensuring that our processes and projects are characterized by the high degree of transparency that our community expects.”

A millage oversight committee was formed in August to oversee and report on the use of funds. The group will meet at least once per quarter to review the status of projects and verify their progress matches what voters approved; track budgets, expenditures, project hindrances and estimated project costs; report to the school board and public with findings and recommendations; and perform with the superintendent requested site visits.

“The millage passed and now we want to make sure that we communicate back to that group of people that we’re doing what we said we were going to do,” Brubaker previously told the Times Record. “That’s really important to me — that we keep that promise with our community in a really visible and transparent way. Having this committee in place will help us do that.”

Two months later, the school board approved a shortlist of architecture firms selected for the facilities upgrades around the district. Seven firms were selected out of 12 that applied based on a quantified ranking system.

Jay Kirkpatrick of HPM, the project manager hired by the district this summer, said the rankings looked at experience, similar projects, key personnel resumes, budget and schedule management, among other qualifications. A selection committee was formed from a combination of district and HPM employees.

There was only a 1 ½-point difference between the seven firms selected. Kirkpatrick said the projects would be mostly assigned based on resources and previous experience, because the rankings were “almost statistically irrelevant.”

Three of the top firms were from Fort Smith, three were from other Arkansas locations and one was out of state. There were concerns from local agencies about what were perceived as bigger, more valuable projects going to firms outside the city.

“The local firms have the qualifications to handle all of the millage projects, and have been servicing the School District very well for the past 25 years and longer. Thus, hiring ‘local’ would have kept the monies received for our services in Fort Smith, instead of them going to Dallas, Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas,” said Michael Johnson of Architecture Plus, following the release of letters of intent. “This seems to go against the ‘keep it local’ theme which has been pervasive in the city for the past few years.”

The letters assigned each firm preliminary millage projects. Corgan Architects of Dallas, partnered with Childers (Fort Smith) was given the role of master planner and career center, while Hight Jackson (Rogers) and Lewis Architects & Engineers (Little Rock) were awarded the Northside and Southside High School gymnasium projects.

These were seen as the superior projects by local organizations, but according to a financial statement provided by Fort Smith Deputy Superintendent Terry Morawski, two of the top three firms with the highest value are from Fort Smith, equaling almost $50.6 million of the $115.3 million assigned. $5.5 million in security upgrades had not been assigned.

Tim A. Risley and Associates of Fort Smith was awarded the renovations, excluding the gym and storm shelters, at Southside High School. It is worth more than $20 million as the No. 1 project.

Risley said his firm has worked with the district since the ‘80s and seen its needs.

“It’s taken a long time to get here, but I intended to stick it out until it finally occurred,” Risley said. “So, we’re tickled.”

Contracts and design work should now be in progress. Morawski said construction should begin late in the spring, with a majority of work occurring over summer break. All projects are supposed to complete in three years.