Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks to superintendents about the LEARNS Act during a meeting at the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative on Mar. 10, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
Greenland School District superintendent Andrea Martin said she’s “been hungry for information” as the LEARNS Act made its way through the Legislature. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the expansive education bill into law Wednesday.
On Friday, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva traveled to the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative in Farmington where he met with Martin and other superintendents in the region to discuss their concerns about the new legislation.
Although the majority of provisions from the LEARNS Act are now in effect, many questions remain about the funding mechanisms and implementation of the law’s mandates because those details have yet to be decided through the rulemaking process.
As a rural district superintendent who has experience working with districts in fiscal distress, Martin said she wanted to know more about the sustainability of funding to support LEARNS Act initiatives in the coming years.
“I got some good answers on finance and funding and some reassurement there, but obviously there’s still more questions,” Martin said. “There’s always [more] and if there weren’t, I guess we’d be kind of stagnant.”
Following the Northwest Arkansas meeting Friday morning, Oliva was scheduled to attend a second one in the River Valley as part of an effort to meet with superintendents across the state. Oliva said he plans to visit all 15 of the state’s education cooperatives next week and the week following Spring Break.
“I was really impressed with the questions, the thoughtfulness, the willingness and eagerness to help improve learning,” Oliva said. “This was a very productive meeting.”
As the former superintendent of a Florida school district, Oliva said he wasn’t surprised that one of administrators’ biggest questions was when they would know how much foundation funding they’ll receive so they can create their budgets.
Arkansas public schools currently receive $7,349 in per-student foundation funding and lawmakers have recommended increasing that amount for the 2023-24 school year. That action must be approved by the Joint Budget Committee, which Oliva said could consider the matter as early as next week.
Martin said her district must submit a budget by the end of September, but they typically start working on it by April so they can have it ready for the start of the fiscal year in July.
“It is somewhat of a crunch, but at least we do have some answers moving forward,” she said.
One component that’s definite is teacher pay is increasing and the state will provide funding to help support the raises. The LEARNS Act increases the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and requires every teacher to receive at least a $2,000 increase in pay during the 2023-24 school year.
The salary piece is exciting, Martin said, because her district “loses good teachers too often to other districts who can pay more.” Greenland is located in the same county as the Fayetteville and Springdale school districts, the only two districts in the state that currently have a minimum salary of $50,000 or more.
Martin said she appreciated Oliva taking the time to answer questions and said moving forward in a collaborative manner will be the best thing for students.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers,’ so I don’t want to be in an us-them kind of scenario,” she said. “It needs to just be all of us working together for kids.”
The next step in that collaborative process, Oliva said, is establishing workgroups and issuing a formal request for people who are interested in participating in helping draft rules for consideration by the State Board of Education.
The request will be issued via a commissioner’s memo early next week and Oliva said everyone from practitioners to parents can apply because “we want to hear from everyone.”
“Anybody that’s interested in this work, we welcome them,” he said.
Oliva also said his department is still on track to publish information on the LEARNS Act on the Arkansas Department of Education website by Spring Break. When asked if the information will be available in Spanish, Oliva said he’s not sure how that’s handled, but he’s not opposed and thinks that could be figured out.
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