AR Briefly

Lawmakers authorize nearly $19 million in school relief funds in final review

By: - October 17, 2022 3:05 pm
Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Michelle Gray

Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Rep. Michelle Gray, co-chairs of the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee, lead a meeting Oct. 17, 2022. (Screen grab from video)

An Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee approved the appropriation of $18.8 million in federal relief funds to 12 school districts Monday.

This is the panel’s ninth and final 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. 

In total, the subcommittee approved more than $811 million for 255 Arkansas school districts. Arkansas has 261 school districts; however, not all districts or charters received ESSER funds, so not all Arkansas school districts presented plans for review, an education department spokesperson said.

Fifty-two percent of the approved district plans will not meet the council’s bonus recommendations.

Of the 12 districts whose plans were reviewed Monday, six revised their plans to meet the recommendations. Six 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During its July 21 meeting, the ALC rescinded $500 million in spending authority it had given the Arkansas Department of Education in June.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 plans approved by the subcommittee Monday must receive final approval from the full council, which is scheduled to meet Friday.

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.