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Department of Education Paving Way to Give Raises to Teachers

(LITTLE ROCK)  The Arkansas Board of Education on Thursday approved emergency rules that pave the way for distribution of $60 million in new state aid to raise the minimum salaries of starting schoolteachers to $36,000 by 2022-23.

Arkansas lawmakers — at the urging of Gov. Asa Hutchinson — earlier this year passed Acts 170 and 877 requiring the increase in the state minimum salaries for beginning teachers with a bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

While the new state-required minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree will be $36,000 — up from $31,400, the new minimum for a teacher with a master’s degree and no experience will be $40,650 — up from $36,050.

The rules approved Thursday include the calculation the state is using to determine a district’s share, if any, of the available $60 million.

Districts that already pay a starting salary of $36,000 or more in the just-completed 2018-19 school year are ineligible to receive any of the funding, according to the newly approved rules.   

Most of the more than 160 districts receiving the aid will get six-figure amounts from the state with a handful of the state’s districts receiving less than $100,000.

Courtney Salas-Ford, an attorney for the Arkansas Department of Education, said the districts have the choice of using the Act 170 money to reach the minimum requirements in one year or to phase in the higher salaries in increments over a period of four years.

Act 170 establishes annual minimums that must be met in an effort to meet the $36,000 and $40,650 goals. For example, in this coming school year, the districts must pay a minimum starting salary of at least $32,800 for a bachelor’s degree and $37,450 for a master’s degree. That must go to $33,800 for a bachelor’s degree and $38,450 for a master’s in 2020-21.

The districts will be responsible for maintaining the higher salaries over the long term, without the expectation of additional special state funding.

The plan for distributing the salary money comes at a time when school districts are planning teacher contracts and salaries for the coming year.

Ivy Pfeffer, the state’s deputy education commissioner, said the agency will assist the districts in thinking through their circumstances — which could include the loss of student enrollment and state funding or the reconfiguring of their staffing plans.

Education Board Chairman Jay Barth of Little Rock noted that several of the state’s open-enrollment charter schools and a few traditional school systems have waivers from the state’s minimum salary law and are ineligible for the Act 170 funding. He wondered whether the funding would cause those schools to want to re-examine their state-approved waivers.

While the emergency rules for distributing the state funds were approved Thursday, those rules will apply only to the 2019-20 school year. The Education Board also approved a nearly identical set of rules to go out for public comment before the Education Board can act on them. Those rules, if approved, will apply in the 2020-21 through 2022-23 school years.

The newly approved calculation for determining a district’s share of the funding calls for subtracting a district’s minimum teacher salary for last year from the minimum salary required for the current year and multiplying that by the district’s number of licensed teachers in 2017-18.

The formula does not count those paid with federal funds, but does include an additional provision to take into account federal insurance contributions and teacher retirement matching rate.

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