Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Michelle Gray, co-chairs of the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee. (Screen grab from video)
More than $54.8 million in federal relief funds will be disbursed to 26 school districts following approval by an Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee Wednesday.
The action marked the panel’s seventh 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.
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.
To date, the subcommittee has authorized nearly $728 million for 218 of the state’s 261 school districts. Four school districts have yet to submit a plan, down from the 17 reported during last Thursday’s meeting.
Of the 26 districts whose plans were reviewed Wednesday, six had already met lawmakers’ recommendations and twelve revised their plans to meet the recommendations. Eight 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During its July 21 meeting, the ALC rescinded $500 million in spending authority it had given the Arkansas Department of Education in June.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’s next meeting is Oct. 6.
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