A legislative panel on Thursday signed off on $72.4 million in spending authority for the state Department of Education to disburse federal American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund moneys to seven school districts.
The Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee authorized the spending authority Thursday afternoon.
Two of the seven school districts seeking more of their allocations of the federal funds revised their plans to meet the Legislative Council's recommendation that the 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, according to a Bureau of Legislative Research analyst.
These two school districts are the Little Rock and Mountain View districts.
The five other school districts seeking more of their allocations of the federal funds didn't provide the Legislative Council's recommended bonuses and provided justifications for not doing so, according to the bureau analyst.
Those five school districts include the Arkansas Connections Academy, Bentonville, Trumann, Lead Hill and White County Central. They cited varying reasons for not providing the recommended bonuses.
The Bentonville school district said the district provided a 1% increase to all salary schedules and a bonus of 1.2% on each employee's contract in the 2020-2021 school year, and a 2.5% increase to the salary schedules and a bonus of 1.2% on each employee's contract in the 2021-2022 school year. In the 2022-2023 school year, a 2% increase was provided to all salary schedules.
"All of these were provided out of the district operating budget," the school district said. "We have revised the [American Rescue Plan] to provide a $2,300 bonus to licensed [employees] and $1,150 bonus to classified employees pending board approval in September."
The Bentonville district has $6.5 million remaining of the $8.2 million in federal funds that were provided, "the 4th from the bottom when looking at the allocation per student," according to the district. The Bentonville district said it received $455.49 per student while those districts at the top received $13,189.59 per child. State officials have said the federal funds were allocated to districts based on the Title 1 funding formula.
"We are requesting additional [American Rescue Plan] funds to fully meet the recommendation of the [Arkansas Legislative Council]," the Bentonville School District said.
The White County Central School District said that "our funding was not enough to meet the requirements of the [Arkansas Legislative Council]."
During the 2021-2022 school year, the district used ESSER III funds for staffing interventionists in the elementary, middle and high schools, the district said.
"We hired interventionist for the 22-23 school year to help shrink the gap of learning loss within the district," the White County Central School District said. "Another cost was for technology Chromebooks for students in the district. The remaining balance will be used for retention and recruitment incentive for District employees."
The spending authority of the federal funds authorized by the panel on Thursday is the sixth tranche of American Rescue Plan 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 individual and corporate income 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.
So far, the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee has signed off on $769.8 million in spending authority for school districts' American Rescue Plan ESSER Fund plans, said Department of Education spokesperson Kim Mundell.
"We have a request next week for $119,241,556," she said Thursday after the legislative panel's meeting.
Thirteen school districts have not turned in their American Rescue Plan-ESSER plans yet, Mundell said.
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. ESSER funds are a part of the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021.
The purpose of the American Rescue Plan ESSER 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.