The Cutter Morning Star School District hosted a "Decade in Review" Monday night at Eagle Arena to celebrate the fiscal challenges the district overcame within the last 10 years.
After being classified in fiscal distress by the state in 2011, aging buildings were replaced as the district slowly began to become more financially secure with the passing of two millage increases in 2012 and 2017.
According to an informational document handed out at the event, at the start of the 2011-2012 academic year, the district had just over $248,000 in its operating fund. At the end of last school year, it had over $1 million. It further noted that the building fund grew from $122,816 to $6,494,075.
Along with increases in both enrollment and graduation rates over the past 10 years, in 2014 the district renovated the bathrooms in the elementary school, acquired a building for the Alternative Learning Environment program, and added new administrative suites and a board room.
The new high school and basketball arena were completed in 2020, along with a FEMA shelter, while 2021 and 2022 saw the addition of a new football stadium, new maintenance and transportation buildings, baseball/softball field upgrades, and a car wash opening.
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District Superintendent Nancy Anderson recognized both past and present board members with plaques.
"I'm very excited to share the progress that Cutter Morning Star has made over the last 10 years, and it's all because of all of you and your leadership," she said.
She said she wanted to host the event in January because it is Arkansas School Board Member Recognition Month.
"So often, board members do not get the opportunity to see the results of their decisions," she said. "You make a lot of our decisions every day, or every month, and sometimes you're not on the board long enough to actually see the things that have happened through your decision-making."
After 2012's millage increase passed by a vote of 373 to 73, the board requested an 8.4 mill increase in 2017, which passed by a narrow margin, 299 to 208. The district currently has the highest millage rate of the six other school districts in Garland County, at 48.6.
Anderson said although fewer than 1,000 voters turned out for both elections combined over the five-year period, she believes community support has gained momentum.
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"I think that now that the community realizes -- I think they knew all along -- but now that they see their tax dollars actually being used wisely and they're actually seeing results from their tax dollars, I think that they are now dreaming bigger and thinking bigger and realize we can do great things here at Cutter," she said.
"Oddly enough, that was one of the highest voter turnouts that we had had for millage votes when we had that vote. We just didn't have a lot of turnout in the past, obviously, but people, they spoke loud and clear."
She noted that people do not always see their tax dollars at work, as it sometimes goes into such things as HVAC improvements, curriculum and instruction, personnel and other resources.
"That's why tonight was really important to me, because I want people to know that I take it very, very seriously. It's not my money. It is the taxpayers' money, and I do the very best that I can to be a good steward with that money with which I've been entrusted," she said.
Different speakers, who spoke from their own unique perspectives at the event, included Dawson Education Service Cooperative director and CMS alumni, Darin Beckwith; state Sen. Alan Clark, R-District 13; Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Executive Director-elect Mike Hernandez; and former CMS athletic director and head football coach Gary Jackson.
Jackson, who coached the Eagles' football team for seven years prior to becoming high school principal at Warren High School in 2007, noted the drastic changes he saw since last being on campus.
"I went out on the football field and there was a cable around the field that was laying on the ground. The visitor's bleachers were tucked over on the side. The lights didn't work. And the pole on the end leaned at about a 45-degree angle. We had one helmet and three pairs of shoulder pads, two knee pads, and I said, 'Welcome to Cutter.' I went in and shut the door and said, 'What have I done?'" he said.
What he did not realize at the time, he said, was "the power of this community and how supportive they are."
"It all went back to the investment of the people in this community," he said.
"It was probably the best eight years that I've been in education. I've been in a large school district, just retired from one that has a thousand students. And bigger doesn't mean better it just means bigger. And it was delightful to come back home.
"My wife come and said, 'When you come back in town, don't hit the bypass, come out here and go look at Cutter's facilities.' I said, 'Take a picture for me.' She said, 'No, a picture won't do it justice.' So when I drove back in, I just stopped on the side of the road, walked over there; it brought a tear to my eye. It was special."
The event ended with a video compilation highlighting the state the school is in now as students told what they liked about Cutter Morning Star.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to put into words," Anderson said. "I get very emotional about it because it's been, I mean, it has been an emotional ride."
She said when she became superintendent in 2012, she did not realize all the challenges the district actually faced.
"I didn't realize it was not just about fiscal distress, but we had accreditation issues. The facilities were not in good shape. We had a lot of work to do, but I was very fortunate that I had a great board that supported me and a great community that supported me and supported our district and supported our teachers, and they wanted what was best for the students," she said.
"But just looking back, I'm just very, very proud. I'm proud for the community, I'm proud for our students. It's all about students and making them, of course, learn, but also developing them and growing them into responsible adults."