1.6 billion dollars. This is the 2022 tax revenue surplus amount currently held by the state of Arkansas. Last year there was a surplus of $945.7 million. In fact, in seven of the past ten years there has been surplus revenue.
Governor Hutchinson and the Department of Education have a plan to use some of the surplus along with other sustainable funding streams to raise educator pay. The governor has called a special legislative session this month to address the use of this surplus. He originally placed a tax cut and educator salary increases on the call for the session, but later removed the pay raises due to lack of interest by the majority of legislators.
On a parallel timeline, federal funding has been received from the U.S. Department of Education in order to address Covid-related problems. These are called ESSER funds, an acronym for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. Schools submitted plans to the state department of education. Once approved, superintendents could begin committing funds to them.
At no time in the past three years of ESSER funds have districts been allowed to use this money for teacher bonuses. The rules are very clear on this. 20 percent of those funds can be used for salaries if they relate to recouping learning loss. 80 percent must be used for equipment and facilities upgrades to improve health and safety conditions, especially HVAC systems.
Unlike ESSER funds, surplus revenue can be spent by the legislature on whatever they deem to be important, and they are quite enthusiastic about the tax cut that primarily benefits those making more than $87,000 per year. Most school employees will never qualify for these tax cuts, nor will most residents of Stone County. The ALC, Arkansas Legislative Council, in an action that left many of us confused, flexed its flaccid muscles a few weeks ago and ordered school districts to use ESSER funds for staff bonuses of $5,000 for licensed personnel, and $2,500 for classified staff.
Those are the facts. These are my questions:
• Does this mean that schools are being ordered to violate the rules set out by the federal government?
• Have the members of the ALC read the ESSER documents that clearly define the use of these funds?
• Why did they jump on the ESSER funds bonus idea less than 3 days before meeting and voting?
• Why did the ALC not allow the education commissioner to speak at their meeting? Were they afraid he would explain the rules to them?
• Is it illegal for the legislature to yank those crucially important funds after they have been committed to projects, or are already spent?
• Do they understand that forcing committed funds into bonuses means improvement projects cannot be completed?
• Who decided the dollar amounts for bonuses? Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, janitors, secretaries, and parapros have all been exposed to the same Covid hazards as teachers, counselors, and specialists. If they were based on Covid risks, aren t all staff equal in that respect?
• Do these legislators understand that a bonus, although it would be nice, is not a raise?
• Why are they so stubbornly opposed to the governor s plan for permanent raises this month?
• Aside from the tax cuts, what exactly do they want to do with that huge surplus?
• Why does much of the legislature think that teachers and staff should trust that the raises they deserve will be approved next year in the regular session? We have been told to wait and see before. This needs to be done now while there is a solid, sustainable plan.
• Do any legislators truly understand the school funding matrix? I ve heard them joking that nobody does.
• Why do some ALC members continue to say they are waiting for an adequacy study before considering raises? Every state in the region has already raised pay and are actively recruiting teachers from Arkansas. Why do we need a study when we already know all of this?
• Why do some legislators never answer questions, or rudely dismiss us as misinformed? Why do some respond with lengthy history lessons of everything they ve done in the past, which is irrelevant to ESSER and surplus funds?
• Do the ALC members who support ESSER fund bonuses understand that what they have done creates a terrible dilemma for district administrators? It makes teachers appear greedy and selfish, stealing money from necessary projects. Was that a deliberate attempt to create bad optics, or an unintended consequence?
I hope that people realize how hard the staff works in this district, and how many recent improvements and cost-saving measures have been put in place for the benefit of all the kids in the county. We have three high-quality K-12 campuses that serve our community well. ESSER funded projects will benefit those students immensely.
Pay raises can and should be funded by the budget surplus during the special session, not kicked down the road into the Great Unknown. As always, this is about priorities. Much-needed school improvements and pay raises now, versus stalled improvement projects and tax cuts that benefit the wealthy.
Shelley Smith is a retired public school teacher. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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