Police & Fire

Panel approves $64M in school relief funds

By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate

An Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee authorized the disbursal of $64.4 million in federal relief funds to 25 school districts Thursday.

This is the panel’s eighth round of review of school districts’ spending plans since July, when the council strongly recommended that schools use American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money to provide retention and recruitment bonuses to teachers and staff. 

 Republican Sen. Jimmy Hickey of Texarkana (left) chaired Thursday’s PEER subcommittee meeting. He and Sen. Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis) are seen here at another meeting in August. | Dwain Hebda/Arkansas Advocate

The council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee began reviewing districts’ plans for using the ESSER funds in August. The full council has approved all subcommittee action so far.

The subcommittee has approved more than $792 million for 243 of the state’s 261 school districts. There are 12 plans left to review, officials said. Not all districts or charters received ESSER funds, so not all Arkansas school districts will present plans for review.

Fifty-one percent of the plans approved thus far will not meet the council’s bonus recommendations.

Of the 25 districts whose plans were reviewed Thursday, one already met lawmakers’ recommendations and eleven revised their plans to meet the recommendations. Thirteen did not revise their plans and submitted justifications for their decisions.

School districts do not have to provide bonuses because it is a recommendation not a requirement, but they must provide justifications for why they’re not doing so.

During its July 21 meeting, the ALC rescinded $500 million in spending authority it had given the Arkansas Department of Education in June. Lawmakers then recommended that districts award bonuses of $2,500 to full-time classified staff and $5,000 to teachers. They also recommended part-time classified staff receive amounts that are half those awarded to their full-time counterparts.

Approximately $42.5 million of the $500 million had already been spent, so the council appropriated that funding back to the education department.

The focus of ESSER funds is to help schools safely provide in-person instruction, operate safely and address the academic, social, emotional and mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, according to the education department.

The council’s recommendation to provide bonuses to teachers and staff came after the state’s record $1.6 billion surplus prompted calls to use the funds to increase educators’ salaries.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not include teacher raises in the agenda for August’s special session because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators, who said they’d rather address the issue when the regular session begins in January.

The subcommittee is scheduled to meet again Oct. 17. The full council will meet Oct. 21.

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