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Governor: proposed teacher bonuses a ‘curveball’ to districts

Gov. Asa Hutchinson greets a member of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators at the group's annual summer meeting at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock Monday.
Daniel Breen
Gov. Asa Hutchinson greets a member of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators at the group's annual summer meeting at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock Monday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is criticizing state lawmakers for abruptly changing spending rules concerning federal dollars already appropriated to public schools.

Members of the Arkansas Legislative Council last week voted to rescind $500 million in spending authority from the Department of Education. That money, from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, had already been appropriated to the Education Department for schools to use mainly for improvements, hiring and retention.

Lawmakers instead proposed requiring schools to use the funding to provide bonuses of $5,000 to teachers and $2,500 to staff, and for districts to submit detailed spending plans to the committee for approval.

Speaking Monday to a meeting of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, Hutchinson said most districts already had plans for the money aside from raising teacher pay.

“[Lawmakers] want to provide more immediate relief to teachers and staff as well, and I am supportive of that goal. But this plan is a curveball that is not in the strike zone,” Hutchinson said. “It disrupts your local spending priorities, creates delays and more reviews by the legislature, and takes discretionary federal money away from your local decision making.”

Hutchinson said, while he supports giving educators more money, he and state education officials have heard directly from numerous school districts about the potential negative impacts of the proposal. The governor shared some of what he’d heard directly with the audience Monday.

“’We had the [American Rescue Plan] funds planned for roof, windows, HVAC and staff hiring. Now that will have to change.’ A fourth district responded, ‘We can do the bonuses, but we’ll be $1.9 million shy of what’s needed to meet the amounts recommended by ALC.’ Finally, the fifth district responded, ‘The district will need an additional $4.1 million from sources other than ESSER,’” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson had proposed using the state’s $1.6 billion budget surplus to raise minimum teacher pay to $46,000, but lawmakers have said they wanted to wait for the results of an annual educational adequacy study before considering the plan. Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said the governor’s proposal initially came as a bit of a surprise to districts.

“We’d love to be one of the highest-paid groups in the state, compared with other states, but obviously it takes time and planning to get there,” Hernandez said. “Some of the alternative proposals that have come out looking at $42,000 made a little bit more sense to districts, and as far as long-term sustainability I think that’s a question that people have to answer.”

Hernandez said he agrees with Hutchinson that teacher pay raises are needed in order to recruit and retain teachers, especially in rural school districts. He said he’d like to see some plan to provide higher teacher salaries in order to recruit and retain qualified educators.

“Other states around us are raising salaries. At the same time, districts are struggling to recruit and retain staff… and so, for us, what we’d really like to see is folks come to the table, have a conversation about what [are] the best paths forward,” Hernandez said.

The minimum teacher salary in Arkansas is currently $36,000, ranking the state second-to-last in the nation according to the Arkansas Education Association. State legislative leaders say they plan to address teacher pay in the January general session, not an upcoming special session set to begin in early August.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.