BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – The numerous severe winter storms in Arkansas caused the state Education Department and the Highway and Transportation Department to rethink long-standing policies.
The state Board of Education approved waivers for 75 school districts that had canceled classes because of snow, sleet and ice. The waivers allow them to hold classes for fewer than the 178 days of instruction that are required under state law.
Before receiving the waivers, some school districts were looking at classes being extended to mid-June in order to make up for lost snow days. The problems were worse in northern areas of Arkansas, where school districts have canceled holidays and held classes on Saturdays. Some districts had lost 23 days to winter weather, and due to the waivers will only have to make up 13 of the lost days.
In 2015 the legislature will consider options for public schools to re-schedule snow days. One possibility is to allow schools to schedule longer days to make up for lost days. Some educators want to study the pros and cons of offering online classes to make up snow days.
Officials of the state Highway and Transportation Department met with legislators to discuss the massive traffic jams caused by severe winter storms in early March. The problems were particularly bad in eastern Arkansas along stretches of Interstate 55 and Interstate 40.
Highway officials reported that snow and ice removal cost the department more than $18 million this winter. That is a dramatic spike over last year, when the department spent less than $5 million on snow removal.
Some stranded travelers were upset when they saw comparisons with I-55 in southern Missouri.
There were reports that Interstate 55 was in better condition on the Missouri side of the border. However, Arkansas highway officials noted that Missouri spends almost three times as much as Arkansas on highways.
Missouri’s annual highway budget is $2.8 billion compared to $1 billion in Arkansas. Missouri’s highway department employs 1,500 more workers than the Arkansas highway department. Missouri has 5,100 people in its highway department and Arkansas’ has 3,600.
Arkansas has 700 trucks that can be fitted with snow plows on the front end, but only six that can be fitted with bellow plows. They’re better for clearing snow but more expensive. Missouri has 570 belly plows just for its two southernmost districts that border Arkansas.
Highway officials outlined several areas where Arkansas can improve its response to snow and ice. Additional training of employees in how to manage a snow plow will increase the number of drivers who can be transferred around the state to meet local needs. Better communication with local police departments, cities and county governments will help the highway department place its plows where they can be most effective. Another option is hiring seasonal employees in winter, as Missouri does.
The broader question for the Highway Commission is whether to divert money from construction programs and use it instead for general maintenance. Doing so would slow completion of construction projects, while resources dedicated to snow and ice removal are not used during most of the year.
Arkansas voters have recently approved bond issues and a half-cent sales tax increase for highway projects, but that revenue cannot be spent on maintenance.