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Arkansas legislators OK $65.6M in federal funds for 23 school districts

by Michael R. Wickline | September 15, 2022 at 7:07 a.m.
FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

A legislative panel has signed off on granting $65.6 million in spending authority for the state Department of Education to disburse federal American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund monies to 23 school districts.

The Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee authorized the spending authority late Tuesday afternoon.

The spending authority of the federal funds authorized by the panel is the fifth tranche of funds that it has reviewed since the Legislative Council rescinded $500 million in spending authority from the state Department of Education on July 21 as part of its push for school districts to use the money on bonuses for teacher retention before it voted to grant back $42 million of that spending authority.

The council's July 21 vote to rescind the $500 million in spending authority from the state Department of Education came about two weeks after Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he wouldn't put a teacher salary increase on the call for the special session that was held Aug. 9-11 to enact tax cuts because of the lack of support in the Republican-dominated Legislature for a teacher pay increase in the special session.

Republican legislative leaders said they want lawmakers to consider increasing teacher pay during the 2023 regular session, starting Jan. 9, after the House and Senate education committees complete their biennial educational adequacy review by Nov. 1.

The Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee has reviewed plans to use the federal American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund monies from 186 of 260 school districts and granted $739.9 million in spending authority to the Department of Education to disburse these funds, according to a Bureau of Legislative Research analyst.

The funds are a part of the more than $1 billion in federal funding the state received from the ESSER fund to support schools during the covid-19 pandemic. The ESSER funds are a part of the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021.

According to the Bureau of Legislative Research, five of the 23 school districts seeking more of their allocations have current plans that meet the Legislative Council's recommendation that the federal funds be used to give a $5,000 bonus to full-time teachers, a $2,500 bonus to full-time classified staff, and a bonus to part-time classified staff in amounts that are half of those awarded their full-time counterparts.

Seven other districts seeking more of their allocations of the federal funds revised their plans to meet the Legislative Council's recommendation, and 11 other school districts seeking more of their allocations of federal funds have plans that don't meet the Legislative Council's recommendation and provided a justification for not meeting the council's recommendation, according to the bureau.

The five school districts with current plans that meet the Legislative Council's recommendation include the Camden Fairview, Harmony Grove, Izard County Consolidated, Johnson County Westside, and Malvern school districts, the bureau reported.

The seven districts that revised their plans to meet the Legislative Council's recommendation include the Dierks, Friendship Aspire Academies Arkansas, Green Forest, Ozark Mountain, Smackover-Norphlet, West Side and White Hall school districts.

The 11 districts with plans that didn't meet the Legislative Council's recommendation include the Arkansas Lighthouse Academies, Blytheville, Clarksville, DeWitt, Drew Central, Forrest City, Future School of Fort Smith, Gosnell, Valley Springs, Valley View and Warren school districts.

These school districts cited varied reasons for not meeting the Legislative Council's recommendation for bonuses.

The Valley View School District said the primary reason the district is unable to provide the recommended bonus to each staff member is based on the Title 1 formula used in determining ESSER allocations. The Valley View School District said it received $531.96 per student and the inequity is apparent in comparisons with other districts in Craighead County and throughout the state.

The DeWitt School District said the district already has obligated ESSER funds to combat the spread of covid-19 by improving air quality in buildings and buses, increasing social distancing and purchasing other supplies and equipment, and the district has allotted 20% of its funds to address learning loss.

The DeWitt School District said it didn't have enough remaining ESSER funds to meet the Legislative Council's recommendation, but it revised its plan use the federal funds to give certified employees $4,000 and classified employees $2,000 through a recruitment and retention plan. That's in addition to employees getting up to $2,184 in additional pay using ESSER II funds in the 2020-2021 school year, according to the DeWitt School District.

The Clarksville School District said the district's approved plan for using these federal funds has allocated all funds in areas to address the needs of the district in accordance with the rules.

The Clarksville School District paid all licensed and classified employees up to $3,100 each for additional duties during covid-19 from ESSER II funds, the district said. The district paid an incentive of $3,000 to all vaccinated employees from American Rescue Plan funds, and the district will pay a retention bonus of $1,000 to all employees in December from American Rescue Plan funds, according to the district.

The purpose of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Funds is to help state education agencies and local school districts to safely reopen and sustain safe operations of schools and to address the academic, social, emotional and mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation's students, according to the state Department of Education.

Under federal law, the state Department of Education may not direct how school districts choose to use these federal funds, but will assist school districts as needed to develop plans and priorities, department Secretary Johnny Key has said.

The Department of Education may not reimburse districts for American Rescue Plan ESSER expenses until the department's appropriation request has been approved by the subcommittee, according to Key.


Print Headline: State lawmakers OK $65.6M in federal funds for 23 school districts

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