Legislators authorize $65 million in recovery funds for school districts
Another $65.6 million in federal relief funds will be disbursed to 23 school districts following approval by an Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee Tuesday. This was the fifth round of plans reviewed by lawmakers.
The Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review panel began reviewing districts’ use of American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money in August after the council adopted recommendations in July that schools use ESSER funds to provide retention and recruitment bonuses to teachers and staff.
During its July 21 meeting, the council rescinded $500 million in spending authority it had given the Arkansas Department of Education in June. It then recommended that districts award bonuses of $2,500 to full-time classified staff and $5,000 to teachers. Lawmakers 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 the 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 a record state 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 Republicans legislators, who said they’d rather address the issue during the regular session that begins in January.
The subcommittee has authorized more than $600 million for 185 of the state’s 261 school districts so far. Of the 23 districts whose plans were reviewed during Tuesday’s meeting, five had plans that met the council’s recommendations and seven revised their plans to meet the recommendations. Eleven districts did not revise their plans to meet the recommendations and submitted justifications for their decisions.
School districts do not have to award bonuses to teachers and staff because the suggestion to do so by the legislative council is a recommendation, not a requirement.
Final appropriation approval must be given by the Arkansas Legislative Council, which is scheduled to meet Friday morning.