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$6.4M backed for expansion of public TV

Broadcasts fill education gap in pandemic, panel told by Michael R. Wickline | July 16, 2020 at 7:20 a.m.
The Arkansas Capitol is shown in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Arkansas PBS' request for $6.4 million to expand its broadcast coverage throughout Arkansas won the backing Wednesday of a state panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to recommend the best use of federal coronavirus relief funds.

The 15-member CARES Act steering committee also heard requests from several groups for funding to help minority populations in the state. The committee agreed to delay decisions on the requests, some of which may be revised, until next week.

The CARES Act is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. It provided $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funds to the state.

The requests included one from the Arkansas Community Based Covid-19 Ad-Hoc Committee for $11 million for various needs of minority populations in 10 counties in the Delta.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Another request came from the Northwest Arkansas Council's Health Care Transformation Division for $6.5 million for contact tracing, testing and coordination for that region's Hispanic and Marshallese populations.

Courtney Pledger, president and executive officer of Arkansas PBS, told the steering committee that Arkansas PBS worked closely with the state Department of Education starting in mid-March to produce and develop alternative means of instruction to keep pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students actively learning at home for the rest of last school year.

Some public school students can't get access to Arkansas PBS because their families don't have broadband access available or broadband is not in their family budget, she said.

"Our broadcast is free, easily accessible as an option and there are many more potential uses for pre-K through [grade] 12 education for our statewide broadcast airtime beyond the initial Arkansas AMI [alternative method of instruction] efforts," Pledger said.

Pledger said a recent study shows that Arkansas PBS' broadcast signal covers about 76% of the population of Arkansas and the gaps in coverage occur to a larger degree in rural areas, where its over-the-air services are most needed. She said obtaining close to 100% of over-the-air coverage will require Arkansas PBS to upgrade aging technology and expand its existing footprint of six broadcast sites and 12 microwave sites.

She said most state public television networks in states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Iowa and Kentucky report that their reliable over-the-air signals cover close to 100% of their populations.

Pledger said Arkansas PBS will have to establish four new broadcast transmitter sites to fill in four areas of poor reception and increase its coverage up to about 97% of the state's students.

These areas include the northern valley region of Harrison and Mountain Home extending from the Ozark National Forest north to the Missouri state line; the Arkansas River Valley extending west through the Ouachita National Forest to the Oklahoma state line, the plains extending from Forrest City east through to West Memphis and the Tennessee state line and the southwest corner of Arkansas extending from Mena through Hope to Magnolia and including Texarkana, she said in a memo dated to June 24 to the governor.

Providing broadcast coverage to the entire state is critical for providing education and as the backbone for the state's emergency warning system, Pledger said.

She said she expects to complete four stages of the proposed project costing $5.18 million by the end of this year, and the other stages of this project costing $1.2 million in 2021.

State Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther, who serves on the steering committee, said the federal coronavirus relief funds are required to be spent purchasing items and services by the end of this year.

The state will have to find other sources of money to complete this Arkansas PBS project next year if the Dec. 31 deadline for spending the federal relief funds is not extended, he said.

Education Secretary Johnny Key, who serves on the steering committee, said, "We have been working with Arkansas PBS to incorporate that $1.2 million in the post December expenditure ... in another grant that we are seeking from the federal government.

"We are helping them as well to secure the funds for the remaining portion of this project" to spend in 2021, he said.

"Arkansas PBS was instrumental in helping us through the spring in making sure that we could continue education in the state of Arkansas," Key said.

"This is a project that gets the PBS signal to the hardest-to-reach places in the state and we found that those were the hardest-to-reach students in many respects as well," he said before the steering committee endorsed Arkansas PBS' proposal.

The $6.4 million request for federal coronavirus funds was approved in a voice vote with no audible dissenting votes.

Officials in the Northwest Arkansas Council's Health Care Transformation Division told the steering committee that they are seeking the funds to help finance the region's comprehensive plan for virus contact tracing, testing and coordination for Hispanic and Marshallese residents. The virus has had a disparate impact on those groups.

The transformation division includes Washington Regional Medical System, Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas, Northwest Health System, Community Clinic, Arkansas Children's Northwest, Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks, Whole Health Institute, and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, according to the division's proposal.

Officials representing the Health Care Transformation Division said effective outreach for testing, contact tracing and improved case management is important for managing the spread in Northwest Arkansas. Their proposal include $4 million for testing uninsured and vulnerable populations, $2.45 million for contact tracing staff and $97,525 for maintenance and operations for contact tracing.

"Our sense of urgency is also based highly on knowledge that we have gained day to day in real life," Susan Barnett, chairwoman of the Health Care Transformation Division, told the steering committee.

"Our journey has been complex," she said. "We have faced challenging times and we see the outcome of this proposal to be critical for our current state, but just as importantly critical for infrastructure for whatever comes ahead of us."

The Arkansas Community Based Covid-19 Ad-Hoc Committee's request for $11 million in 10 counties in the Delta includes $4.1 million for school districts partnering with nonprofit groups to provide mental health, after-school and alternative learning services; $1.8 million for business technical support, assistance, grants and loans; and $1.4 million for personal protective equipment for child care workers, child care worker payments, and food nutrition services.

The request also includes $1.3 million for senior citizens' transportation services, general support and telemedicine capacity; $865,000 for personal protective equipment for municipal workers and support for election workers and support for food banks; $750,000 to nonprofits for administrative support to provide outreach, educational and technical services; and $663,060 to provide covid-19 testing to 10% of the population in 10 counties in the Delta.

"This proposal is to make sure that we reach the most needy of the people for the various components that you see inside the proposal," state Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, told the steering committee.

"Now, there are standards and measures that we want to make sure that are met and they are met in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, who has the experience, who has the capacity, who has done this at much higher levels than we are even trying today," he said.

"Covid-19 did nothing but exacerbate an existing issue, an existing problem. Where there was a gap, now there is a gulf and it's no one's fault," Murdock said. "It's nature. It's what has happened. But we have been given an opportunity by the federal government through these resources to reach and help many."

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