A legislative panel on Wednesday granted $54.8 million in spending authority for the state Department of Education to disburse monies from the federal American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to 26 school districts.
The Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee authorized the spending authority Tuesday after lawmakers learned that 18 of the school districts seeking more of their allocations of the federal funds now have plans to provide the bonuses recommended by the Legislative Council in July.
Six of the 26 school districts seeking more of their allocations of the federal funds have current 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 school districts include the Dardanelle, Emerson-Taylor-Bradley, Exalt Academy of Southwest Little Rock, Hackett, Lakeside and Marvell-Elaine districts.
Twelve other schools districts seeking more of their allocations revised their plans to provide the Legislative Council's recommended bonuses, according to the bureau analyst. Those districts include Atkins, Berryville, Brookland, East Poinsett County, Graduate Arkansas Inc. in Little Rock, Greenwood, Horatio, Mammoth Spring, Midland, Paris, Paragould and Westwind School for the Performing Arts.
Eight other districts seeking more of their allocations of federal funds didn't revise their plans to provide the Legislative Council's recommended bonuses and provided a justification for not doing so, the legislative analyst said. They include the Arkadelphia, Greene County Tech, Hector, Hermitage, Magnet Cove, Mansfield, Sheridan and the Siloam Springs districts.
These districts cited varying reasons for not presenting plans to use the federal funds that provide the Legislative Council's recommended bonuses.
The Arkadelphia School District said it is unable to meet the Legislative Council's recommendation for bonuses as a result of the American Rescue Plan ESSER funds remaining, after the 20 % set-aside for learning loss, already being committed to an approved building project that is already under contract. ESSER is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
The district said it is in the process of building a new K-4 elementary school to replace three buildings that are on the 2023-2025 statewide needs list for warm, safe and dry projects.
"The demolition of Peake and the construction of the new elementary school on that site will allow students being housed at Goza and Perritt to move to the new school, vacating those old buildings," the Arkadelphia School District said. "Due to the Division approval of the Partnership Program funding for the new elementary school at $200/SF, our District has to make up the difference at a $300+/SF rate due to the current construction costs."
The new elementary school is a necessary project to provide students with larger spaces and new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to improve air quality and meet standards, the Arkadelphia School District said.
The school district said it remains committed to improving teacher salaries and will continue to look at ways to do so as well as ways to incentivize recruitment and retention of staff through bonuses using other sources of funds.
"We are just unable to use the ARP ESSER funds due to the building project that has already been approved and underway."
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said he wants to make sure the Arkadelphia School District won't get in trouble for using federal American Rescue Plan funds to construct a new building because it doesn't seem like a covid-related use of the funds.
But Greg Rogers, assistant commissioner of fiscal and administrative services in the Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said state officials only approve allowable uses of these federal funds.
The Siloam Springs School District said it, along with all other school districts in the state, submitted a plan for using American Rescue Plan ESSER funds to the state well over a year ago.
"We followed the guidelines provided by the state in developing the plan and solicited feedback as required," the district said. "The plan was approved as submitted, and we have already spent money on Hero Pay (2020-2021 and 2021-2022), salaries for interventionists (math, literacy, behavior), curriculum software and materials, HVAC/air quality, furniture and equipment, and expansion of CTE programming. In addition, we are currently under contract for additional HVAC, buses, construction of Virtual Academy space and this year's salaries for approximately 20 positions across the district that were added as a direct or indirect result of COVID."
The Siloam Springs district said it does not have enough remaining American Rescue Plan ESSER funds to provide additional bonuses as recommended by the Legislative Council.
"Trying to fund even a portion of the recommended bonus out of these funds would adversely affect people, positions, and programs that were included in the original plan and intended to combat the effects of the pandemic on our schools and students," the district said.
The spending authority of the federal funds authorized by the panel on Wednesday is the seventh 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.
The education committees are slated to discuss educational adequacy issues and potential recommendations on Monday and Tuesday, according to the General Assembly's website.
Since July 21, the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee has signed off on $824.6 million in spending authority for school districts' American Rescue Plan ESSER Fund plans, said Department of Education spokesperson Kim Mundell.
Four school districts have not turned in their American Rescue Plan-ESSER plans yet, said Rogers. These districts include the Blevins, Cotter, Jackson County and Sloan-Hendrix districts, Mundell said.
These federal 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.