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Arkansas committee tables legislation to increase funding for classified employee pay

Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, listens to Keisha Dunn from the Little Rock School District speak in favor of his bill to increase funding in support of raises for classified staff.
Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, listens to Keisha Dunn from the Little Rock School District speak in favor of his bill to increase funding in support of raises for classified staff.

The Senate Education Committee tabled a bill Wednesday that would increase per-student foundation funding in order to support a raise for public school districts’ classified employees.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 149, which would increase per-student foundation funding amounts from $7,349 to $8,195 for the 2023-2024 school year and $8,370 for the 2025-2026 school year.

While there has been much discussion about increasing teacher pay, Leding said, classified employees have “been largely left out of that conversation.”

Classified employees are school employees who don’t require teaching licenses, like administrative assistants, bus drivers and janitors.

“These are the people that keep our schools running smoothly so that education can happen,” Leding said.

Keisha Dunn, a classified employee at Jefferson Elementary in Little Rock, spoke in favor of the bill. Dunn said inflation is difficult to keep up with and a little raise would be helpful for staff, many of whom want to keep working for the district, but may not be able to afford it with their current salary.

“I’m working two and three jobs just to make ends meet. I’m barely home with my kids because I’m trying to make ends meet,” she said. “The rent is going up, food costs, everything is going up, so how can classified [staff] maintain a living off of what we are making right now?”

SB 149 proposes that the Arkansas Department of Education advise public school districts to pay classified employees at least $15 an hour, beginning with the 2023-2024 school year. They currently receive $11 an hour, the state’s minimum wage.

The classified staff raise comes from a recommendation in the 2022 educational adequacy study to raise the per-pupil foundation amount for non-teacher employees. SB 149 doubles the initial recommendation from a $2-an-hour increase to $4 more an hour.

The Senate and House education committees met jointly last yearto discuss school funding and review the adequacy of education spending, a requirement imposed by the landmark court case,Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee.

Lawmakers have conducted these adequacy reviews every two years since 2003 to ensure public school funding is equitable. The Senate and House issuedtwo separate reports last year, but both recommended increasing classified employees’ pay by $2 an hour.

Leding said the $4-an-hour increase is expected to cost $43 million.

Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) noted that the bill does not require schools to pay $15 an hour, it simply advises schools to do so. Dotson said foundation funding is “no strings attached in a lot of ways,” so schools can pay more or less than the recommendation.

Leding agreed, but said the bill’s language was developed after working “at length” with staff at the Bureau of Legislative Research and ADE.

“You’re right, sometimes funding is directed elsewhere, but I think it’s our job to at least make sure that they have the funding to make this possible because if we don’t give them the funding to make pay raises, then they won’t be able to give the pay raises,” Leding said.

Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville), who has been involved with the creation of the governor’s education bill, said there are plans to increase foundation funding. Because the bill hasn’t been filed yet, she made a motion to table SB 149.

“I think it’s important that we wait and deal with this as we already intend to in the education bill and we’ll see those foundation funding increases at that time,” Davis said.

Her motion was approved on a voice vote. The committee’s two Democrats, Leding and Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) were the sole dissenters.

Following the meeting, Leding told the Arkansas Advocate he was “disappointed but not surprised” with the meeting’s outcome. Leding said he was glad the discussion was tabled because “that at least keeps the legislation alive.”

It would take a two-thirds vote from members to bring the bill back up in committee, he said.

Davis told the Arkansas Advocate lawmakers are trying to take everything into account when it comes to the education overhaul, including adequacy recommendations and the governor’s proposal to raise the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.

“There’s just a lot of moving parts and I want to make sure we have everything out on the table and that we’re all having a conversation equally based on everything that we’re trying to do in education,” Davis said.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.