Many people look at the moment when Westark College became the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith – marked by a flag raising at one minute after midnight Jan. 1, 2002 – as the major transformational moment in the university’s history.
An argument can be made that a moment more than a decade earlier put Westark on the road to full university status. On May 1, 1990, Sebastian County residents voted for an increased property tax, to 5.25 mills, to help Westark Community College grow. With the additional income, Westark bought science laboratories, instructional equipment, and computers, and it built and remodeled buildings, according to The First 85 Years: 1928-2012, a history of the university by Billy D. Higgins, associate professor of history; Stephen Husarik, professor of humanities; and Henry Q Rinne, former dean of Fine Arts.
The community support that the millage represented helped Westark gain momentum, and it added the University Center, which allowed students to remain in Fort Smith while they completed 4-year degrees granted by other universities. Then in 1997, Westark gained status as a “unique community college” with authority to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in its own name.
It was clear that Sebastian County was ready for a four-year university.
So it might have been surprising, but it also might have been inevitable that in 2000, B. Allen Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System, sat down to talk to Westark College President Joel Stubblefield. Sugg suggested Westark become part of the UA System.
The property tax that brought growth to the college now presented a hurdle. The Arkansas state constitution stated that a community college could not keep its millage if it became a four-year university.
It was complicated.
If UAFS was to be born, voters would have to repeal the millage tax, dissolve the community college district, and approve the sales tax of one-quarter of one percent. The money was to be collected for maintenance, operations, and capital improvements.
Campus leaders knew it would take at least a half-cent tax to replace the millage, but they did not want any county residents to pay more in sales tax than they had in millage.
They also could have presented a 30-year tax, but they had a 20-year plan, and they asked for a 20-year tax. Leaders wanted to prove what the new university could do if entrusted with the funds.
The sales tax passed by 76 percent on July 17, 2001.
And that 20-year plan was completed in 10 years.
Here’s what else the University did, as enumerated by the University’s current chancellor, Dr. Terisa Riley.
In the past 20 years, the university has created more than 45 bachelor’s degree programs and two master’s programs.
In the last 10 years, it has conferred more than 13,000 degrees, including about 7,000 bachelor’s degrees.
It has transformed its campus and learning spaces with $6 million in renovations, including upgrades to nearly every building on campus.
The sales tax yields more than $500,000 a month for the university, Riley said. In 2019, the university received $6.3 million. Despite the pandemic, sales tax revenue for the first six months of 2020 is up by nearly $100,000 over the first six months of 2019.
Riley attributes that to the federal stimulus payments and increased unemployment payments, which allowed residents to buy what they need.
The sales tax approved by voters in 2001 will sunset on Jan. 1, 2002.
And so Sebastian County voters will be asked on Nov.3 to extend the sales tax by 10 years.
Without the $6 million from the sales tax revenue, the scenarios are not good.
“We would have to cut about $6 million from our annual budget of about $80 million,” Riley said.
There are only a couple of ways to make up the money, she said. One way would be to increase fees and tuition. The necessary increase would be about $1,200 per student per year or $5,000 more for a four-year degree.
The other possibility is that the university could eliminate academic programs, concurrent degree study, and student success initiatives.