Little Rock School District leaders talk LEARNS ramifications

Legislation’s effect on policy, salary schedules confronted

FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

Little Rock School District leaders late last week dived into the new Arkansas LEARNS Act and what it will mean in terms of employee salary schedules and operating policies for the coming 2023-24 school year.

Kelsey Bailey, the district's chief deputy for business and operations, presented four teacher salary schedule options that would cost the 21,000-student capital city system anywhere from $4.4 million above current costs for 190-day contracts to as much as $12.9 million above the current costs.

The Little Rock School Board took no action on the salary plans or policy changes during the work session.

During a special meeting earlier Thursday, the board:

Approved a five-year contract with First Student Inc. to continue to provide school bus transportation service to students. The annual cost to the district will range from $12.5 million to $13.5 million. It can vary based on students and numbers of routes.

Authorized the superintendent to grant discretionary emergency leave -- including up to five days of paid leave -- to employees prevented from reporting to work because of natural disaster or catastrophe, including the March 31 tornado.

Learned that School Board member Ali Noland does not intend to run in November for reelection to the Zone 5 position on the nine-member board.

Arkansas lawmakers earlier this year adopted the 145-page Arkansas LEARNS Act that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders had proposed as a way to revamp prekindergarten through 12th grade education.

The new multi-part law calls for the minimum teacher salary to be $50,000 in the coming school year-- up from what was the state minimum of $36,000 and $45,500 in the Little Rock district. The law also envisions $2,000 increases for those who are currently earning $50,000 or more.

Additionally, Sanders' signature law authorizes the establishment of transformation contracts between poorly performing public school districts and third-party organizations such as charter schools. It expands the use of taxpayer money for private school tuition and supplies, requires the retention of some third graders who struggle to read, and mandates 75 hours of community service as a requirement for high school graduation. It also repealed the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and the Public Employees Fair Hearing Act.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

Bailey told the School Board on Thursday that a Little Rock teacher salary schedule that incorporates the required $50,000 minimum salary and $2,000 raises for those already at $50,000 -- but retains the existing 2% increase for each year of employee experience as well as a 2.5% percent increase for additional education credits -- would cost an additional $12.9 million.

He said that plan "is not affordable" and is "off the table" as it would result in the district's being classified as fiscally distressed.

State leaders have said that money to reach the $50,000 salaries and $2,000 raises will be provided by the state, separate from the traditional foundation aid for public education. The Little Rock district is supposed to receive $4.5 million in the LEARNS Act funding for teachers, according to a draft report on district funding throughout the state.

The special state aid would cover the cost generated by a second possible salary schedule plan, Bailey said, a plan that would incorporate the state-mandated $50,000 and $2,000 raises but not provide step increases for experience or for education advancement. That option would cost an additional $4.4 million.

Two other options that retain but reduce the step increases for experience and/or education would cost $5.4 million to $7 million, Bailey said. Reducing the experience step from 2% to 1.8% and reducing the education increases from 2.5% to 2% would result in a $7 million additional cost for teachers, including counselors and media specialists. To keep the education step at 2.5% and reduce the experience step to 1.685% would cost about $5.4 million, depending on the district's number of teachers, which he said would be about 1,685.

Noland, a board member, voiced multiple concerns about the law, saying that employees are currently pursuing advanced degrees in education with the expectation of salary benefits.

"What's lost" is that the additional education "has value for our students," said Noland who also questioned whether there would be money for support staff increases.

Superintendent Jermall Wright told the board that he and his staff will work over the next couple of weeks with the district's Personnel Policies Committees to develop employee contract and salary plans for licensed and support staffs.

"The scariest piece to me," Wright said, is the impact that declining student enrollment could have on the district's funding for next year. The district lost about 600 students this school year as compared to the past school year, he said, and the Arkansas LEARNS Act provides new options for families to choice out of the traditional public school system.

Chris Heller, an attorney for the school district, highlighted components of the Arkansas LEARNS Act that will require the district to revise its policies and practices. That will include extracting from policies the references to the Teacher Fair Dismissal and Employee Fair Hearing acts that have been repealed.

The district's reduction-in-force policy that relies heavily on protecting experienced staff will also have to be adjusted, Heller said. That's because the LEARNS Act requires employee performance and effectiveness -- and not seniority -- to be protected in a reduction-in-force policy.

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