Tuesday, January 27, 2015

TOP STORY >> Governor’s budget offers more for schools

Leader senior staff writer

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed $5.2 billion 2016 budget would increase state funding for school districts needing to replace or repair deficient academic facilities, funding to reimburse county jails—and thus counties—for holding prisoners for the state, and at the Department of Human Services, more money for Children and Family Services and also for Medical Services.

Hutchinson’s budget is about $150 million more than forecast.

He says his budget is balanced—as required by law—despite a $100 million tax cut to middle-income Arkansans.

The big winner is the Educational Facilities Partnership fund, which would receive a $10 million increase—29 percent—for 2016 over the $34,828,951 budgeted this year, and a $16.5 million increase—another 14.5 percent—for the 2017 budget. That totals $97 million in school facilities matching funds for the next biennium.

That’s a small help to the Pulaski County Special School District, which receives less than a penny on the dollar for its approved academic facilities, because it’s considered a wealthy district, and no help at all to the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, which will first be eligible for matching funds in the 2017-2019 biennium.

At that time, it’s anticipated that the state will match the new district dollar for dollar for approved academic facilities. PCSSD has estimated the needs of schools that will be transferred to the new district at $93 million.

The new Jacksonville-North Pulaski schools will not be eligible for the approximately 50 percent matching until the 2017-18 school year, according to Charles Stein, director of the Division of Educational Facilities and Transportation.

That means, other than the 0.5 percent match PCSSD is eligible for, Jacksonville will receive none of the approximately $97 million the governor proposes for academic facilities matching in the 2016-17 biennium. The new district is still under the umbrella of PCSSD.

Interim Superintendent Bobby Lester said he had given the new district’s two-year building plan to PCSSD, ahead of the Feb. 1 deadline. The master facilities plan for both districts will be submitted together because the state has not yet issued the new district its own identification number.


Hutchinson proposed in-creasing county jail reimbursement for state inmates backed up in the system by $11.4 million a year to $27,853,607 — an increase of 69 percent the first year — and maintaining that funding through 2017.

“We met with the governor this afternoon, and his proposal is to increase funding on reimbursement and paying what is already owed,” according to Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay.

Hutchinson’s proposal would increase state reimbursement to $30 a day from $28. The Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association puts the actual cost of housing an inmate at $44 a day.

Holladay says the state usually owes his jail between $2 million and $3 million.

Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley says the state keeps pretty current with his jail. “We communicate almost daily, and they are usually about two months behind,” Staley said.

The state Sheriffs’ Association has been meeting in North Little Rock this week, and Holladay said many of the 44 sheriffs attending would be visiting with their representatives to impress upon them the importance of leaving the money in the budget and of increasing the daily reimbursement.


Big losers seem to be the merit-raise fund — reduced from $5.2 million to zero — and the governor’s rainy day fund. Both have been used in the past at the governor’s discretion to entice businesses or help reimburse county jails.

That fund was forecast at $12 million, but it will not be funded under Hutchinson’s proposed budget.

The General Education Fund increased by 9.1 percent, but most of that was money for the academic facilities partnership. Accounts funded at less than forecast in that fund include the Department of Career Education, the School for the Deaf and the Department of Education.


State Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) is so strong an advocate of reforming and streamlining workforce education that she traded the final yes-vote on private option, of which she was a foe, for promises of a taskforce to strengthen workforce education.

Hutchinson would cut the Department of Career Education by $216,000, or nearly 6 percent, and Career Education by $319,000 — 1 percent.

“I don’t think this is finished,” English said. “This is just the beginning. Career education is pretty important.”

In a release about his budget, Hutchinson said it meets the adequacy requirements for funding K-12 public schools and that he’ll assess the need for additional pre-K programs. He says the schools will get a four-year $60 million federal grant.

The budget creates a $5 million Computer Science Initiative Grant program, increases funding for drug courts, fulfills the commitment to maintain higher education spending and provides a cost-of-living adjustment for state employees.

Most state agency budgets were cut by 1 percent, $5 million, of which $3 million is coming from one-half of the special revenue assessment on natural gas production and is directed to general revenues.

The other $2 million, from the Tobacco Settlement funds, is redirected to Medicaid.