Arkansas panel approves $188 million in COVID relief funds to school districts

Arkansas lawmakers approved $188.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the Department of Education on Thursday after previously voting to rescind hundreds of millions in COVID-19 relief funds from the department.

The Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council approved the funds to be distributed in grants to 44 school districts.

There were originally 119 school districts that applied for the money.

ALC received backlash from Gov. Asa Hutchinson in July after it voted to rescind approximately $500 million in relief funds and recommend school districts pay certified teachers bonuses of $5,000 and $2,500 to classified and part-time staff.

The panel required school districts to create a bonus plan and explain themselves if they chose not to.

Of the 44 school districts who were approved to receive funds Thursday, 10 districts already had plans to use the money for teacher retention, 14 revised their plans to include teacher retention bonuses in their spending, and 20 districts did not revise their plans and submitted written justifications for not doing so.

Searcy School District said it had no plans to offer further compensation from American Rescue Plan or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds as it had already spent approximately $2.8 million in additional compensation for all employees over the last two years, which equated to around $4,700 per employee.

The Arkansas School for the Blind said it was because the federal funds it received would not be sufficient.

Lonoke School District said it was unable to meet the recommendations for bonuses due to previous spending, but it said it reallocated its remaining balance to do smaller bonuses of $3,000 for certified staff and $1,500 for classified staff.

Meanwhile, some districts like Mulberry-Pleasant View Bi-County School District adjusted plans to fully meet ALC recommendations and said it would give recruitment and retention bonuses in three separate payments.

The disparity in bonuses or lack thereof among school districts across the state is something the governor previously said he was worried would happen.

The federal relief funding is meant to “help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at schools and continue district services and operations,” according to a letter from the state’s chief fiscal officer. It is meant to go toward helping school districts “safely reopen and sustain safe operation” while addressing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students, according to the appropriation request.

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