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Arkansas panels disagree on funding raise for state schools

Dispute involves extra $5M for special education, transit by Michael R. Wickline | November 1, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

The House and Senate Education committees disagreed Tuesday about whether to recommend that the Legislature provide about $5 million more in state funds for special education and transportation programs for public schools in fiscal 2019.

Also Tuesday, several members of the two committees debated the merits of the state Department of Education contracting with a firm for a professional development pilot project and selecting 11 Arkansas schools and a school district to participate in the project.

State law requires the two committees to make any changes in their latest educational adequacy reports by today in advance of a fiscal session.

At the behest of Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, the Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday to recommend a $2 million increase for special-education funding for catastrophic occurrences over current fiscal 2018 funding of $13 million. The committee also recommended a $3 million increase for a supplemental transportation program over fiscal 2018 funding of $3 million. Fiscal 2018 started July 1, and fiscal 2019 starts July 1, 2018.

Clark said he made this motion to reflect what he considers to be the Senate Education Committee's recommendation last year, after negotiations among several senators on the committee. The Legislature this year increased fiscal 2018 state funding for special education in catastrophic occurrences by $2 million to $13 million and created the supplemental transportation program with $3 million. The state provides about $3 billion a year to public schools, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research.

But after the Senate committee voted, the House Education Committee declined in a voice vote to endorse the recommendation.

"We will have our report and y'all have yours," House Education Committee Chairman Bruce Cazort, R-Hot Springs, told lawmakers.

Freshman Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, asked fellow lawmakers, "If we approve this, what services are we going to cut?"

Cazort said the Legislature will make funding decisions in the fiscal session, which starts in February.

In response to Cavenaugh's question, veteran lawmaker Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said, "After having done a study, this is what we say we ought to do, and this is what we think we need to do to achieve [educational] adequacy.

"The courts made it real clear to us that our question is not whether or not we're going to be funding what we finally vote on, and what we have to cut is what we have to cut," Elliott said. "But we are not to measure what we do for adequacy against whatever else goes on in this state. That seems pretty draconian, but it is the way it is."

Asked what will happen with the differing recommendations from the education committees, Cazort said in an interview that the dual recommendations "will actually go to the fiscal session unless they change their mind and bring back some other recommendation."

Asked about how the disagreement will be resolved, Senate Education Committee Chairman Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said, "I don't know. We'll see. We'll work on it."

PILOT PROJECT

Earlier, several lawmakers spent about an hour and a half debating the Education Department's use of professional development funds for 11 schools and the Prescott School District in a pilot program to receive support from Solution Tree, a national company that specializes in team building among teachers as a way to improve student learning.

The schools and district will receive up to 50 days of training, coaching and support to build and sustain a strong culture of collaboration, according to the department.

The selected schools are Ballman and Spradling elementary schools in the Fort Smith School District; Bragg Elementary School in the West Memphis School District; Douglas MacArthur Junior High School in the Jonesboro School District; Eastside Elementary School in the Greenbrier School District; Frank Mitchell Intermediate School in the Vilonia School District; Joe T. Robinson Middle School in the Pulaski County Special School District; Monticello Middle School in the Monticello School District; Morrilton Intermediate School in the South Conway County School District; the Premier High School, a charter school in Little Rock; and Rogers High School in the Rogers School District.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, questioned why the Education Department awarded the contract to Solution Tree through a sole-source contract without bidding the contract out.

Greg Rogers, an assistance commissioner for fiscal and administrative services in the Education Department, said a new law -- Act 427 of 2017, sponsored by Cozart -- instructed the department "to seek out and find a professional development organization that would do this" and found Solution Tree.

Chesterfield said her consternation over sole-source contracts "is we give to those who we know rather than taking bids, seeing if this is the most cost effective, what did we use as our criteria to determine that this was the best group for this process. Did we look at what others had done? Were there other groups that were able to do this?"

Rogers said they did look at other groups.

Rogers said the department expects to get $4.1 million in increased state professional development funds for the pilot program in fiscal 2018, and about $8.4 million in fiscal 2019 when more schools will be selected to participate.

Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, said she believes the language in the law "was manipulated to make sure that we gave it to a certain company."

Act 427 of 2017 states that "the Department of Education may partner with or choose a person, firm, corporation of education service cooperative to provide the knowledge, the skills, the experience and the expertise for the development of a research-based process for the implementation of professional learning communities," according to a staff member for the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Cazort said the Legislature has reviewed other sole-source contracts for millions of dollars and "this is a drop in the bucket. I'm not saying that we should always do that.

"But when you find somebody that can do the right job and do it effectively, I think that's a good choice.

"This was also a recommendation from a bunch of legislators, that also had seen what they do to choose this group, if possible, if they were interested in doing it."

Metro on 11/01/2017

Print Headline: Panels disagree on funding raise for state schools

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