Wednesday, April 13, 2005

TOP STORY>> Legislators put schools in tight spot

IN SHORT: Senators approve facilities bill, but many districts are unhappy, will file lawsuits.

Leader staff writer

In a school board meeting Tuesday night, Cabot Superinten-dent Frank Holman said his district would lose $630,988 in incentive funding and $188,060 in general facility funding from the state over the next 10 years.

But the news was not all bleak. “We’re going to get 62 percent of our future educational facilities funded. I think it can work. We’re a growing district,” Holman said.

Kieth Williams, superintendent of Beebe Public Schools, said Tuesday, “This coming year will be a difficult year for public schools because there will be no additional funding to pay for a litany of unfunded mandates from the legislators for staffing and program requirements.”

State schools are facing $168 million in new costs and unfunded mandates generated this legislative session. In addition, the facilities funding bill, which passed the Senate Tuesday afternoon 29-3, will alter the way districts are getting state assistance and many districts worry it won’t be enough. Some have threatened to go to court over the funding issue.

“Finances are a major challenge for any public school superintendent. Even though the emphasis is on student achievement, superintendents can’t separate themselves from the issues surrounding funding,” Williams said.

The state will now rank its 253 school districts from richest to poorest and will provide building subsidies for future facilities construction and improvements. For example, Wealthier districts in areas with high property values will receive less subsidized funding.

Pre-January 2005 facilities assistance and incentive funding will be phased out over a ten-year period.

The money from both phased-out funding formulas will be re-distributed to districts through the Educational Facilities Partnership Fund Account.

“I think everybody was just resigned to the fact that’s the best we’re going to get in facility funding in regards to existing debt,” said Sen. Shane Broadway.

“Some wanted it one way and some wanted it another and we just had to meet somewhere in the middle,” Broadway said.

The House passed Broadway’s education adequacy bill Tuesday afternoon with 79 for and 21 against.

“Sen. Broadway and myself, we’re elated. The work we’re doing is going to be really good in the long run,” said Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado.

The foundation funding for the 2006-07 school year in Broadway’s bill is $5,497 per student. Last year it was $5,400 per student. For the year 2005-2006, it will remain at $5,400.

“Schools will lose money if they lose students and that’s fair,” Mahony said.

The 84th General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Educational Adequacy adopted the Educational Adequacy Report in August 2003.
Each General Assembly is required to reassess the educational adequacy in Arkansas and recommend changes to maintain it as an ongoing priority for the state.

The report recommended spending $847 million to bring education in all Arkansas school districts up to an adequate standard back in 2003.

“Next year, we’re going to focus on teacher salaries. There’s a big discrepancy statewide. Schools in Springdale are starting teachers at $44,000 a year. The state average is $27,000. Something will have to be done,” Mahony said.