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OPINION: No questions asked as $77.2 million approved

by By Maylon Rice, Politically Local | September 14, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

The late U.S. Senator Dale Leon Bumpers, said, it best: "When they say it is not about the money -- you can bet it is about the money."

Last week, the Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee authorized the spending of $77.2 million to 40 of the state's 288 school districts.

And, listen up Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, the committee with the long name did so ... without asking a single question.

Not a single question was asked by its members.

Wow!

Maybe it is all about the money -- the federal money.

The federal American Rescue Plan's (ARPA) Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), has sent the state more than $500 million to date. This, $77.2 million chunk, was the fourth such outlay to area districts from the federal funds, which are "sort of held and approved" by state leaders.

"Sort of held and approved," sounds about right, according to Arkansas School Czar Johnnie Key, a former day care operator and state legislator from Mountain Home.

Key said the federal fund, under federal law, is held by the state Department of Education, but his agency may not direct how school districts choose to use these federal funds. But gladly, Key points out, the state will assist school districts, as needed, to develop plans and priorities.

No wonder the average classroom teachers in Arkansas are outraged at the state and federal educational system.

Arkansas's classroom teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, yet more than $500 million in federal funds have come through the state with little, if any, strings attached for teachers.

Yet the state, only now, has suggested that "some of the federal ESSER funds" be used for state approved bonuses of $5,000 for classroom teachers and up to $2,500 for non-certified school staff.

This was the "end around" plan that Key and Gov. Asa Hutchinson hatched to put a lid on the classroom teachers gaining a ground swell into getting a raise in basic pay, until a legislative efficiency study could be completed in 2022 and ready for a pay raise recommendation in 2024 -- all under a new governor and possibly a newer general assembly.

Again, it makes one's head swoon that without a single question $77.2 million was approved for this payout.

Here is more of a breakdown that will make your head spin Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer.

Eight school districts are seeking more of their federal allocation that don't meet the legislative council's recommendations. And these eight explained why as they marched to the back of the pay line to wait and see.

Another 10 districts got the OK and are waiting on the checks to arrive. This includes Bearden, Buffalo Island Central, Cedarville, Clinton, Corning, Nashville, Omaha, Palestine-Wheatley, Riverside and Van Buren.

Another eight districts have revised their original plans to match the legislator's requirements and are ready for their cash. They are: Des Arc, Flippin, Heber Springs, Hope, Jessieville, Ouachita River, Stuttgart and Viola.

The 26 districts that didn't meet the Legislative Council's recommendations will be back.

Many of these 26 gave reasons why they didn't meet the requirements for staff bonuses to the panel.

Clarendon Schools, for example, said 20% of its ESSER allocation was devoted to learning loss and then more of those funds to a safe, warm, dry building for its school children.

The Dover School District said its board has already paid additional compensation to its teaching and non-teaching staff over the past two years, but the district said it would use its remaining federal funds to pay out $3,500 in additional pay to all staff.

And here is the real kicker to taking and doling out federal funds at any level, especially when overseen by a state government.

"The (Arkansas) Department of Education may not reimburse districts for American Rescue Plan ESSER expenses, until the department's appropriation has been approved by the subcommittee," according to Key.

So, subcommittees will keep meeting quietly, frequently and at times, almost silently, at the state capitol to sign off on millions and millions of school funds.

But tragically, not a plug nickel for more teacher pay.

-- Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Print Headline: No questions asked as $77.2 million approved

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