For years, Bentonville School District has been recognized as one of the state’s best school districts. That honor is the result of a lot of interlocking factors, but it’s common knowledge that great teachers make for a great school district. 

There’s just one problem, if you’re Bentonville School District: your teachers don’t have anywhere to live. If you’re the Bentonville City Council, this doesn’t seem to matter that much, because they just rejected $20 million in mostly private funding to give incoming teachers affordable housing. 

Yes, you read that right. The Bentonville City Council thinks that teachers don’t need to live close to their schools, even at no cost to the city. 

The Situation So Far

Last year, the Bentonville School District approved a land donation to the Excellerate Foundation (essentially the only “public funds” involved in the project). The five acres sits right behind the Bentonville High School, so it can’t be used for another school or similar development. 

In turn, the Excellerate Foundation was contracted to build 100 units of affordable housing; sixty units are apartment-style or otherwise multi-family housing, and the remaining forty units would be single-family homes. For teachers living in the single-family homes, they would only make principal payments with interest. Upon leaving their house, they would get the principal back, meaning they might have as much as $50,000 to put toward their next home. 

This is a huge boon in an area that’s seen exploding home prices. Dr. Debbie Jones, the Bentonville Superintendent, has described multiple instances of teachers committing to coming to Bentonville and then having to back out because of the lack of nearby, affordable housing. That’s a terrible way to keep the stellar reputation of the district. The Excellerate partnership  would completely alleviate this problem. 

The project’s cost has come up a lot, but it’s quite negligible for the city. Out of the $20 million price tag, $5 million comes from private money and much of the rest comes from federal grants. While it would develop a chunk of green space, with how fast Bentonville is growing it’s almost certain that green space will be developed anyway into some gaudy apartment complex. The current design in fact preserves as much green space as possible, including trails between buildings, space for play, and other public amenities.  

This process has been really special to watch: it’s an ideal private/public partnership, supported by community members on every side of the political aisle. It’s exactly the kind of work between government and its people we love to see here at On AR Watch. Dr. Jones, Kelly Carlson, the School Board President, are both incredibly supportive of the project. 

Most community members and educators have been as well. Upon the approval of the land donation in November, there seemingly were only two steps left: rezoning the land and adjusting the land use maps. 

Both are the responsibility of the Bentonville City Council. 

The Situation Now 

On Tuesday, February 13, the City Council held its votes. According to councilmember Gayatri Agnew, the vote was expected to be largely perfunctory. While the project had some hiccups, including a legal challenge on which the Attorney General had to issue an opinion, it seems the constant challenges from a minority of the stakeholders only served to reinforce the popularity of the project. 

Unfortunately, this is where things went wrong. During public comment, the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, among other powerful local groups, expressed “strong support” for the development. The Chamber representative noted the carefully considered development, the lack of cost to the city, and the strongly positive economic effect that good teachers have on local businesses. The civil engineer involved in planning the project noted that citizen concerns over traffic in a high-pedestrian density area had been taken into account, and the plan included traffic diversion strategies. 

However, a few citizens expressed strong opposition citing concerns over the development of a nine-acre green space and increased traffic near high-pedestrian density areas (the civil engineer who helped plan the project noted that traffic diversion had been implemented into the development plans). 

Despite experts stating these claims weren’t really valid, the council seems to have taken them seriously. In a surprising vote, the council voted 4-3 against the rezoning. Cindy Acree, Holly Hook, Octavio Sanchez, and Beckie Seba voted against; Gayatri Agnew, Bill Burckart, and Chris Sooter voted for both. Aubrey Patterson, a teacher, abstained, providing no reasons for the abstention. 

If Patterson had voted for and tied the vote, Mayor Stephanie Orman would have been the tie breaker. She’s been hostile to the project in the past and other similar projects, but the development was so popular she likely wouldn’t have wanted to oppose it publicly. 

In the video on the vote, Councilmember Agnew is visibly shocked and disgusted. She told On AR Watch that this vote is a “gigantic slap in the face to the robust community coalition that was in favor” of this project.  It was a “beautiful compromise to a difficult problem,” she said, but now the project will be difficult to resurrect in a similar form. 

What’s next? 

The situation moving forward is complicated. Gayatri Agnew and Kelly Carlson were clear that this doesn’t mean the project is dead, but it’s certainly been dealt a huge blow. The proposed zoning was for R3, which is “Medium-High Density Multifamily Residential.” 

Because the council voted against this zoning, it can’t be resubmitted for a year, but advocates for the development could alter the proposal and resubmit under R2: “Medium Density Two Family and Townhome Residential.” This would, of course, dramatically change how the project will eventually look. It’s not dead, but it’s going to be much, much harder to get it done. 

So What Happened?

The truth is we don’t know for sure, but here’s the questions we’re asking and our takeaways. 

First, there’s Aubrey Patterson’s abstention. As a teacher, she’s intimately familiar with the teacher shortage crisis, but Bentonville is in the enviable position of being one of the fastest growing zip codes in the nation and flush with cash. Teachers want to move there and they want to live close to work, as most of us do. 

The only roadblock was housing availability, which this project would have obviously solved. It’s unclear why she abstained; OAW was told that typically, councilmembers give a reason for abstentions; she does not appear to have done so. It’s possible Mayor Orman pressured the abstention to avoid casting a tie-breaking vote; she’s made no secret of her distaste for affordable housing, but going on record against such a popular project wouldn’t exactly endear her to voters. 

Second, On AR Watch was told that the vast majority of communications received by stakeholders from community members were glowingly positive toward the project. Like Councilmember Agnew said, this was a great compromise solution to a thorny problem. For the councilmembers to vote against their constituents’ interests for unclear reasons is ridiculous, and the city council needs to provide some serious transparency on what went wrong. 

Third, it reinforces the impression that Bentonville refuses to create multi-family, affordable housing in general. Again, it’s one of the fastest growing zips in the nation, and there aren’t enough houses to keep up with demand. 

This council vote is deeply shortsighted and created politicization where none should exist. The city needs housing for everyone, not just teachers, but if they won’t even help teachers out, what hope do the rest of the folks trying to move there have? 

We’re deeply frustrated by this vote and what it represents. We hope the project can move forward somehow, but it’s going to be difficult.