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

After earlier voting to revoke hundreds of millions in COVID-19 relief monies from the agency, Arkansas lawmakers approved $188.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the Department of Education on Thursday.

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The money will be given to 44 school districts in grants after being authorised by the Arkansas Legislative Council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee. 119 school districts initially submitted applications for the funding.

After voting to revoke almost $500 million in relief money and recommending that school districts provide certified teachers bonuses of $5,000 and $2,500 to classified and part-time workers, the ALC faced criticism from Governor Asa Hutchinson in July.

Of the 44 school districts that were given the go-ahead to receive funding on Thursday, 10 already had plans in place to utilise the money to reward teachers for staying in the classroom, 14 updated those plans to incorporate such bonuses, while 20 did not and provided written justifications for doing so.

The Searcy School District stated that it had no intention of providing additional compensation from American Rescue Plan or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds as it had already spent roughly $2.8 million in additional compensation for all employees over the previous two years, which works out to approximately $4,700 per employee.

Due to prior spending, the Lonoke School District claimed it was unable to comply with the recommendations for bonuses; instead, it claimed it had reallocated its remaining funds to provide lower awards of $3,000 for certified personnel and $1,500 for classified workers.

Some school districts, such as Mulberry-Pleasant View Bi-County School District, made adjustments to their plans in order to fully implement the ALC's recommendations and announced that they would distribute recruitment and retention bonuses in the form of three separate payments.

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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