BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE
LITTLE ROCK – The state has approved funding of $128.7 million for 67 projects to renovate and make repairs at public schools.
Upgrades include new heating, air conditioning, roofing and fire alarms. Some schools will use the money for expansions of classrooms, gyms and auditoriums.
School districts must match the state grants, but not all of them must match at the same rate. Schools with relatively low property assessments match at a lower percentage than schools with higher property values, in which a mill generates greater revenue.
The state awards grants for school facilities improvements as a consequence of the Lake View lawsuit, which challenged the adequacy and equity of school funding. The state Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that the state’s school funding formula was in violation of constitutional mandates to provide equal educational opportunities to all children, no matter where they live.
The case was concluded in 2007, after the legislature had greatly increased school funding and guaranteed that it would determine and provide adequate funding every year. One of the final steps toward state compliance with constitutional mandates occurred when the legislature allocated more than $450 million in facilities funding during the 2007 regular session.
The monetary awards were approved by the Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Commission, which is composed of the state Education Commissioner, the director of the Department of Finance and Administration and the President of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority.
The Commission approved funds for projects that will begin during the 2015-2016 school year, and also approved 53 additional projects that will be funded in 2016-2017.
Priority projects are those that ensure students stay safe, warm and dry during the school day. The quality of facilities can affect the performance of students and teachers, for example, heat and humidity may cause distraction and fatigue. Schools are regularly inspected to make sure that plumbing and electrical systems are up to code, and that fire alarms and kitchen equipment are properly maintained.
The “wealth index” is a formula to calculate how much a local district must contribute to match state funding. When property assessments go up inside school district boundaries, the school is considered “wealthier” and its portion of the costs of a facilities project also goes up.
Losing students also causes the district to become “wealthier” under the facilities wealth index. Therefore, loss of enrollment not only decreases state aid in the amount of per pupil funding the district receives, it also makes the district’s facilities costs go up.
Gaining students or losing assessed value of property makes a district “poorer,” according to the wealth index. That means the state contributes a greater proportion of the costs of facilities projects.
The Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force held its first meeting and worked on methods to narrow the discrepancy in access to services between populated and isolated areas of Arkansas.
Parolees in rural areas should have the same access to mental health and drug abuse treatment as parolees in urban areas, the chairman of the task force said.
The task force was created by Act 895 of 2015, which was the major bill approved in the legislative session to reduce prison overcrowding.