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State lawmakers on education committees reversed course on Monday, voting to hire an out-of-state consultant to study Arkansas' public education funding model just a month after rejecting such a contract.

After Monday's legislative maneuvering, the House and Senate education committees took the preliminary step toward hiring Denver-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to conduct a study of state public school funding.

The $659,580 contract must obtain final approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council, the body of lawmakers that meets when the General Assembly is not in session. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue said there was concern that the contract could get held up before the Legislative Council, which meets next week.

The contract has split members of the education committees. Some have supported a different vendor, some have raised concerns about the cost, while others have opposed hiring a consultant at all.

Still there has been adequate support to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates at several points in recent months; indeed, the House committee voted to enter the contract in October. But, due to absences, the Senate committee hasn't had the votes to authorize the contract at past meetings.

With all senators present at Monday's meeting, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, successfully moved to expunge last month's failed vote to hire the Colorado group. The Senate Education Committee chairwoman, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, then successfully moved to hire the group.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, complained that English's motion was brought without prior notice or being placed on the meeting's agenda. He said he was OK with voting to expunge last month's vote because he was absent from that meeting, but that the vote on the actual contract should come at a future meeting.

"This is a terrible way to do business," the Senate leader said.

Public education accounts for the largest single category of state spending in Arkansas -- $2.25 billion of this year's $5.75 billion general-revenue budget.

Public school funding levels are reviewed every two years by the House and Senate education committees, which make funding recommendations to the governor and General Assembly. The biennial reviews typically include small funding tweaks and cost-of-living adjustments; the committees' recommendations are typically accepted.

Arkansas school funding hasn't received an in-depth, outside review since two college professors were hired to help develop a new funding formula in 2003 after a landmark court decision that deemed the state's education funding model unconstitutional.

Consensus among lawmakers has developed in recent years that the funding formula needs a rework in several areas, but they've disagreed on how to go about making changes.

Some members have said that the education committees are best equipped to review funding levels themselves, but others say a fresh set of eyes would help the committees.

House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, has supported for several years hiring an outside consulting company, and he said Monday that he was happy the committee took the first step to that end.

"I think everybody wanted to see a study; there's just disagreement in the way they want to see it," Cozart said.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, made several motions on Monday intended to kill the contract, but they didn't attract the requisite support. He said he prefers that the education committees focus on making changes to the handful of areas that they've known have been flawed for several years.

He pointed to school transportation funding, which has been structured in a way that rewards urban districts at the expense of rural districts. Lowery said that transportation funding could be moved into a separate category of funding that is based on district need.

"It's easier to make fixes if you have a structure that you've had in place for 15 years and you know where the sticking points are," Lowery said. "With a consultant, they have to come up with something new to earn their keep."

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates proposed meetings with educators across the state, reviewing research, studying successful schools and conducting school district surveys to complete its studies, which would be due in November 2020.

The firm has worked in all 50 states over the better part of the past four decades, and it has conducted adequacy studies in more than 20 states.

Reached Monday, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates co-CEO Justin Silverstein said the company had not received any official word from Arkansas, but that it was pleased with Monday's action.

"We think there's plenty of time to get this job done, and we'd be really excited to work with the committees," he said.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates was the only bidder earlier this year when the committees issued a broader request for adequacy study proposals. The committees denied that bid because of concerns about the then-$943,605 cost and the scope of the firm's proposed study.

The bid request was tweaked and narrowed, and Augenblick, Palaich and Associates was one of two companies that submitted bids. The other bidder was Missouri-based Shuls and Associates, which bid $499,236.

Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming said the teacher group was grateful for legislators' actions on Monday.

"We appreciate the education committees' recommendation to hire a firm to conduct a deeper dive into the mechanisms by which the state resources public schools in Arkansas," Fleming said in a statement. "During adequacy hearings last year, legislators made it clear that the current system is falling short, forcing school districts to shift money across categories to cover the true cost of educating Arkansas's students. Every child in Arkansas deserves a great education, and we hope this study will provide the information our lawmakers need to ensure our schools have the resources needed for student success."

Metro on 11/05/2019

Print Headline: 2 panels back state schools funding study

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