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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, answers questions during a Senate session at the State Capitol March 28, 2019 in Little Rock. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a change in how the state distributes millions of dollars to school districts for construction costs.

Senate Bill 535 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, tweaks the formula for calculating the "academic facilities wealth index" to better account for a school district's wealth.

A district's wealth index, under the state's Academic Facilities Partnership Program, determines the percentage of state funds available for a particular project. But some have questioned the fairness of the current index, saying it fails to take into consideration unique challenges facing districts with declining enrollment.

The changes included in SB535 were the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Public School Academic Facilities, in accordance with Act 801 of 2017. The new formula will make more state construction funds available to poorer districts with declining populations, meaning less funds will be available to wealthier, growing districts.

"These funds need to be effectively and fairly targeted to school districts and schools with the highest need and lowest capacity to meet those needs," the committee wrote in its 2018 report.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

The state began contributing to school construction and renovation costs under the Public School Academic Facilities Program in 2004 after an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that the state's education system was inadequate, inequitable and unconstitutional.

The state has contributed more than $1.2 billion to school facilities projects, and lawmakers this year accepted the committee recommendation to cap future state assistance for those projects at $90 million annually.

The current formula for determining the percentage of state funding that a school district qualifies for on a particular project includes dividing the district's total assessed property value by the district's enrollment. That calculation boosts the standing of growing districts, but it costs districts facing a loss of students by making the district appear wealthier in the state's eyes.

Under SB535, a third factor -- a district's median income -- also will be taken into account. It also allows the state to use a district's highest enrollment figures from the past decade instead of the most recent numbers.

The change turns the current formula on its head, favoring poor, declining districts. It also would mean a loss in the percentage of state construction funds available to growing districts, particularly those in wealthy areas.

Under the current wealth index, Springdale, Bryant, Cabot, North Little Rock and Bentonville school districts have received the same amount of state construction assistance funds as the bottom 150 districts. It's that disparity that caused state officials to re-examine the wealth index, said Brad Montgomery, the director of the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation.

Administrators from the Bryant and Bentonville school districts testified against the bill in committee, saying that growing districts are constantly in need of new facilities.

Bryant Superintendent Karen Walters said she believed the formula needed to be adjusted, but that SB535 was the wrong approach.

"I think the pendulum is swinging too far the other way," she said. "For those of us that are growing, we've got to build buildings for those kids."

The bill was amended to ease the blow to "high-growth" school districts -- those that grow by more than 4 percent. There are about 42 high-growth districts in Arkansas. The state has 238 school districts, according to the state Department of Education.

Dale Query, director of the Arkansas Rural Education Association, praised the wealth index change.

"This is an attempt to equalize it so that a district that is losing kids doesn't also get dinged as being a wealthier district," he said. "There is no doubt growing districts need help. There's also a need for warm, safe, dry, adequate buildings in areas of the state where the median income is very low, where they're losing kids and losing state funding for that reason."

A Section on 04/11/2019

Print Headline: Senate OKs formula shift for school building funds

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