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Workers at Little Rock School District get $300 for vaccinations

Staff-incentives cost to top $1M by Cynthia Howell | July 24, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK -- The Little Rock School District is offering $300 to every district employee who is fully vaccinated against covid-19 by Oct. 1.

The district's School Board voted 7-0 with two absent to approve the incentive for the district's approximately 3,100 employees, including teachers, at a meeting Thursday during which the board also:

• Reinstituted last semester's covid-19 employee sick leave policy.

• Authorized district staffers and the district's financial adviser to begin preparations for asking voters for a tax millage extension to generate as much as $300 million for school construction and facility improvements.

• Reviewed a draft plan to raise employee salaries over three years, including a proposed $7,000 increase this year for starting teachers, from $36,000 to $43,000, and to $48,000 by 2023-24.

At least 67% and maybe as many as 75% of district employees have already been vaccinated, Superintendent Mike Poore said.

"Our employees have done a tremendous job -- don't get me wrong," he said in a video statement before the board meeting about the vaccinations. "We want to get to a 100% vaccination rate. If we are going to get there, an incentive may help us."

Poore said the financial incentive "honors those" already vaccinated and those who get vaccinated in the coming weeks.

"And it protects everybody," he said.

School-affiliated employees statewide were among the first groups of adults who could get vaccinated earlier this year -- after health care workers and the elderly -- against the contagious and potentially fatal virus.

School Board member Jeff Wood questioned whether the district had attempted to survey its non-vaccinated employees about whether the $300 was sufficient "to buy them out of their convictions" to not get vaccinated.

District leaders have projected that the incentive will cost more than $1 million, which will come from federal government-provided covid-19 relief money.

"It's a lot of money to spend with unknown and unprojected results," Wood said

Deputy Superintendent Keith McGee said district leaders are convinced that the cost is worth it to encourage the staff to get the shots. The district is also working with the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop an incentive for students 12 and older to get the vaccinations, he said.

Kelsey Bailey, the district's chief of finance and operations, told Wood that even if not all employees get the vaccine, the ones who do will not likely become ill or have to quarantine. They will be able to provide instruction, transportation and other services that otherwise might be lost. There are soft costs and intangibles involved, he said.

Board member Ali Noland said the vaccine incentive is one of the very few tools the district has to fight the covid-19 spread in the coming school year and that parents have indicated to her their support for the incentive.

Poore said the district is planning to host several vaccination clinics in the district in conjunction with staff training and student activities "to blanket" the district with opportunities to get the free shots.

The incentive pay will be distributed to employees who can provide proof of being fully vaccinated by Oct. 1.

Employees will also be entitled to limited paid time off for acquiring the vaccinations -- four hours -- and for time if needed to recover from any after-effects of the shots.

The school district is not alone in offering incentives.

The White Hall School District in Jefferson County, for example, announced plans earlier this month to provide $200 to each vaccinated employee and to give a "free" day out of school to students 12 and older who show proof that they are fully vaccinated.

Similarly, Gov. Asa Hutchinson in May announced that state agencies under his control would award $200 bonuses to employees who received at least one vaccine dose by July 1. The governor also offered the public for a time the opportunity to receive lottery tickets or Game and Fish Commission gift certificates for getting vaccinated.

In addition to the shots incentive, the federal covid-19 relief money will be used to cover the $1 million cost for the district's covid-19-related sick leave.

The 21,000-student district has access to almost $100 million in the special funding that was approved by federal lawmakers in three rounds in 2020 and 2021. That money has been used for purchase of personal protection equipment, sanitizing supplies, computer devices and internet connectivity, and curriculum -- including the purchase of new math textbooks.

It will also help support the district's new Ignite Learning Academies that will provide online instruction to students whose families choose to keep their elementary and secondary students at home for the coming school year.

The proposed covid sick-leave policy -- retroactive to July 1 and extending through December -- is similar to the covid-19 sick-leave policy used January through June of this year but which expired July 1.

The School Board's newly approved resolution on covid-19 sick leave provides 10 days, or 80 hours, of leave to full-time employees who are unable to work -- or who telework -- because the employee has been directed to quarantine; has or may have covid-19; or is caring for a spouse, child or parent who has been directed to quarantine because of the virus.

The policy provisions enable employees to take leave for covid-related issues without having to draw down their regular sick leave or take unpaid leave.

Discussion on the incentive and covid leave was mixed with talk about the district's inability under state law -- Act 1002 of 2021 -- to require students and employees to wear masks to fight spread of the disease.

Noland questioned whether the district can enforce the desire of individual parents that their children wear masks at school. She said that wouldn't be a mandate because families could opt out of the mask-wearing for their children. Noland also suggested that the board pass a resolution stating that it would enact a mask mandate for students and staff members if it were allowed to by state law.

McGee told the board that the district's Ready For Learning committee is working to finalize plans for school operations in the coming year while also waiting for guidelines from state education and health agencies. The district plans will be aligned with the state guidelines, he said.

The final plan that should be ready for board review in the next couple of weeks, he said, will include protocols for cleaning schools and buses, ensuring good classroom ventilation, and requiring seating charts for students in class and on buses to ease virus contact tracing.

District leaders reviewed with the board the draft plan for increasing salaries for employees -- including teachers -- over three years but will not vote on the compensation plan before October.

For teachers who work 9¼ months a year, the draft plan calls for a starting salary this school year of $43,000 for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience. The plan provides a 2% step increase for each teacher's additional year of work experience -- down from the current 3% -- and a 2.5% increase for acquisition of additional college credit hours toward master's or doctorate degrees -- down from the current 5%.

Board member Greg Adams noted that the salary plan includes provisions for "right-sizing" the school district, which can mean reducing staff positions or even closing campuses to ensure a balance between revenue and expenses. A vote for the salary plan in essence commits the board to that right-sizing, Adams observed.

"I want to do this with our eyes wide open," he said.

Also Thursday, the board voted 8-0 to authorize district staffers and financial adviser Jack Truemper to begin preparations for a possible election this year on extending the levy of 12.4 debt service mills by 19 years as a way to raise $300 million for facilities, including a new kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school on the site of the vacant McClellan High and possibly a new high school in west Little Rock.

Poore recommended the $300 million as a cap for potential bond issues but said the board had the option to cap the bond issues at a lesser amount to reduce annual debt payments.

The district has scheduled five public forums, the first one at 5:30 p.m. July 29 at Southwest High School, to present and gauge support for preliminary plans for spending the bond money should voters approve the tax extension at an election later this year.

School Board member Evelyn Callaway asked for assurances that district employees will get the proposed salary increases -- even if the tax mills aren't extended by voters.

Bailey said some repairs to schools must be made and that the district would have to draw from operating funds to do that.

An extension of the 12.4 mills would not increase annual taxes but would result in paying the taxes for more years. The 12.4 mills are set to expire in 2033 unless extended to the proposed 2055.

Other forums will be Aug. 3 at Pinnacle View Middle School, Aug. 4 at Hall STEAM Magnet High, Aug. 5 at Central High, and Aug. 9 at Parkview Magnet High. All of the forums will start at 5:30 p.m.

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