Legislative committee wants full accounting of COVID spending by schools

A subcommittee that monitors state spending is asking Arkansas education officials for a full accounting of federal COVID relief funds given to the schools.

Arkansas received $1.7 billion in funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and the department has $9.4 million remaining, according to state education officials.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who co-chairs the ALC-Peer subcommittee, said Tuesday there was some confusion among school district employees he talked to about how the funding could be used.

"They were led to believe or felt as though, it could only be used for capital-type projects when in fact DOE (the U.S. Department of Education), said first and foremost it should be used for retention, recruitment and bonuses," Dismang said.

The questions come as Democrats are asking to include teacher raises in an Aug. 8 special session. Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for the session earlier this month to discuss how to spend a $1.6 billion surplus. The governor said the session would address tax relief and other items he would announce later.

All of the state's Democratic legislative delegation signed a letter saying teacher pay should be included in the special session. According to a report presented in April by the Bureau of Legislative Research, the average teacher's salary in Arkansas is $50,546, while the national average is $64,133.

"Some state legislators want to use the surplus to speed up tax cuts for the already-wealthy instead of funding local school districts and teacher pay," the Democratic Party of Arkansas said in a Facebook post.

Dismang said a December 2021 memo from the federal DOE listed teacher pay as its number one item that could be funded with COVID relief money.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said school districts are aware the funds can be used for teacher retention, recruitment and bonuses. But the funds are distributed using a Title I funding formula, meaning some school districts "didn't get a lot," Key said. Title I funding directs funds to school districts with a high number of students in poverty.

Dismang said it was difficult to tell online how much money school districts received from ESSER funds. The subcommittee directed Key to provide a detailed list of fund distribution for every school district in the state.

The subcommittee also recommended the full ACL committee rescind a vote last month that released $520 million in ESSER funds to the Arkansas Department of Education. The ACL committee meets Thursday.

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