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Arkansas schools compress salary schedules in response to LEARNS Act

Cristina Spano for NPR

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Nearly a third of Arkansas school districts no longer offer pay increases for experience or additional education, an immediate result of a new state law that increased the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 a year.

The LEARNS Act increased Arkansas’ minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and requires all teachers to receive at least a $2,000 raise for the 2023-2024 academic year.

The law also eliminated the state’s minimum salary schedule, which required pay increases for teachers with more education and experience. But districts must create a salary schedule to receive state funding that assists with the additional teacher compensation.

“It was very challenging to make sure that we do what we’re required to by law so we can get the [state] money that we can get to help pay those raises, but not overdo it to the extent that we put ourselves right out of business because that doesn’t help our kids or us at all,” said Lisa Kissire, Western Yell County School District superintendent.

Some superintendents interviewed by the Arkansas Advocate said paying $50,000 to everyone is temporary until they see what effect the new law has on their budgets. Others said it’s all they can afford, even with the state providing supplemental funding.

According to Arkansas Department of Education data, 71 of 234 traditional public school districts offer $50,000 for all salary schedule levels. The data does not include how many teachers were already making $50,000 or have exceeded it because of the mandated $2,000 raise.

Of the 71 districts with salary schedules that don’t exceed $50,000, 65 have maximums that are lower than what was offered before the LEARNS Act. The decreases, which average around $6,200, range from $250 for Western Yell County to about $23,500 for Bryant.

Director of Communication Devin Sherrill said Bryant Public Schools developed a simplified, transition year schedule that increased teacher salaries to $50,000 and gave a $2,000 raise to all certified employees making at least $48,001. A committee will soon begin working on salary schedule recommendations for the 2024-2025 school year, she said.

Star City School District’s schedule is also meant to be temporary. Superintendent Jordan Frizzell said he wants to know the state’s long-term funding plan before implementing a more permanent solution.

“We just try to make the best decisions and try to stay financially stable, but there’s a lot of guesswork to it and that’s the scary part of it,” Frizzell said.

The state provided $181.5 million in General Revenue funding — $173.2 million for traditional public schools and $8.3 million for public charter schools — for additional teacher compensation as part of LEARNS and the funding is expected to continue, ADE spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said. The funding covers teacher salaries and benefits.

“Governor Sanders has clearly stated that funding will continue in perpetuity,” Mundell said in an email.

Funding was calculated on each school district’s 2022-2023 cycle 1 budgeted base salaries, according to an ADE memo. Asked if funding will be recalculated each year or if districts will receive the same amount in perpetuity, Mundell said at this time it’s the latter.

Some charter schools were not included in ADE’s 2023-2024 report because they needed extra assistance developing the required salary schedule for the first time, Mundell said. An updated report should be available soon.

Revenue Streams

Population changes can strain small districts’ finances because some state funding is tied to student enrollment. Kissire said declining enrollment has been an issue for Western Yell County where the number of students dropped from 432 to 290 over the last decade.

“I’m going to have to lose some teachers. I hate that, that’s just our reality,” Kissire said. “When you don’t have enough students you have to cut people. And by the way, when you cut people and you put yourself down to the bare minimum, it’s very difficult to raise test scores.”

Arkansas lawmakers conduct adequacy reviews every two years to ensure public school funding is equitable, as mandated by Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee. During this process, legislators use a funding formula called the matrix to calculate per-student funding, which this year is $7,618.

In addition to state funds, districts can access federal money. Frizzell said an increase in students eligible for free and reduced lunch resulted in additional federal funding for Star City.

Western Yell County School District Superintendent Lisa Kissire
Arkansas Advocate
Courtesy photo
Western Yell County School District Superintendent Lisa Kissire

Meanwhile, Kissire said her district is seeing a decrease in federal funding. Kissire was able to use pandemic-related Elementary Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money for staff bonuses last year, but it was one-time funding.

“They got nothing at Christmas this year and I hate that, but we cannot afford it,” she said. “I mean we’re broke.”

Using federal funds for a teacher’s salary complicates district finances further because they won’t qualify for the state’s teacher raise funds, Kissire said.

The state funded all positions that were paid entirely with state funds, Mundell said. However, if an employee was partially paid with federal funds, the state funding was prorated based on the amount of the salary that was paid for with state funds.

The LEARNS Act requires that funds allocated by the General Assembly for additional teacher compensation only be used for salaries. To qualify, districts must use state funding equal to 80% or more of the amount allocated for personnel salaries, according to the funding matrix. Districts can apply for a waiver from this requirement if it would put them into fiscal distress, but Mundell said no waiver requests were filed.

Kissire said Western Yell County has dipped into its savings and she’s concerned that if the district closes, it would devastate the community as its biggest employer.

“This community will not survive,” she said. “If the school closes, this will become one of those ghost towns you drive through,” she said.

Veteran Teachers

As a former teacher, Kissire said she’s pleased educators received a big raise because “we should have never been making, with four-year-degrees, minimum wage salaries in the first place.” However, she’s dissatisfied with veteran teachers being paid the same as someone with no experience.

“They are not the same. They’re not in the same category,” she said. “It is more valuable to have someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. They have insight and knowledge that you cannot get from a new person. Period.”

Critics of the LEARNS Act last year warned that eliminating a minimum salary schedule would hurt veteran teachers. The legislation’s supporters said it would provide districts more flexibility.

“Districts can pay more than the minimum and were encouraged to do so,” Mundell said.

Any changes to the minimum salary will be discussed by the Joint Education Adequacy Committee, she added.

Star City Superintendent Jordan Frizzell
Arkansas Advocate
Courtesy photo
Star City Superintendent Jordan Frizzell

Frizzell said he likes flexibility, but a lack of guidance from the state complicates matters because every school looks different.

“It creates more of a gap between the haves and have nots because in rural small schools they don’t have the funding to go out 28 years on a salary schedule and compete with these larger schools and there may be larger schools just right across the street,” he said.

Frizzell said “teachers make teachers,” which is why districts rely on veteran teachers to stay as long as possible to mentor new educators. Frizzell pointed to his recent hiring of a retired teacher as an example.

“We value her so much because she has now come in as a retired teacher and is mentoring some of our younger teachers, and you can’t take away the importance of that in our schools,” he said. “And when those veteran teachers hit the door and all you have is young inexperienced teachers, it does take an effect on you.”

Frizzell said he’s trying to make the best decisions for teachers, but funding is a “really complex” issue.

“It’s like I tell my staff all the time, if we have the money, it’s going to your pockets,” he said. “I mean you’re the people that are doing the work. We want to support you. We want to pay you the most money that we absolutely can.”

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.