The Little Rock School District will send a 2022-23 budget plan to the Arkansas Department of Education by the end of next week after the school board unanimously approved it Thursday night.
The school board, which now includes newly appointed member Joyce Wesley to replace Jeff Wood, approved the budget at a meeting where it also: took steps to provide all employees with a $5 retention incentive $000, half to be paid in November and the other half in November 2023.
Authorized the use of $1.2 million in federal covid-19 funding to distribute to elementary schools for after-school tutoring programs.
Referred to the District Certified Personnel Policy Committee for further work, the committee’s proposal that the District continue to provide employees with 10 days of covid-19 sick leave in addition to traditional sick leave.
Jermall Wright, the district’s new superintendent, called the 2022-2023 budget plan one that “fully supports the mission of the Little Rock School District and our commitment to advancing student learning for every student in every school.” The district is expected to have total local, state and federal revenue of $339,151,094 this year, compared to $336,936,756 in actual revenue for the just-concluded 2021-22 school year.
The state’s second-largest district, which has about 22,000 students, projects spending this school year of $347,931,151, which could see the district withdraw more than $7 million from its savings account or fund balance, to meet expenses.
Kelsey Bailey, the district’s chief assistant for finance and operations, told the board that any drawdown on fund balances this school year will be the result of receiving categorical funds from the state last year which will not be spent until this school year.
Categorical funds are limited to specific expenses. During the pandemic school year, there has been less spending on those particular programs, Bailey said, adding that revenue collected last school year is budgeted to be spent this year.
Categorical funding is for services for students who are not native English speakers or students who are assigned to alternative learning environments due to failure in a traditional classroom setting. Enhanced Student Achievement is another large categorical state fund that the District of Little Rock uses in part for its pre-kindergarten classes. Over the past two pandemic school years, pre-kindergarten enrollment in the district has been cut in half but is now increasing, Bailey said.
Bailey assured the board that district savings that are not earmarked for specific programs exceed $25.9 million.
The budget includes step increases for the experience of all employees, including a general increase for teachers – incorporating a starting teacher salary of $45,500. It also includes the ongoing contribution of $275 per month towards an employee’s health insurance costs – an amount that will increase to $300 per month in January.
The district has 3,170 employees this year, including 1,697 in teaching positions. That’s down from 3,284 last year and a high of 3,993 employees in 2015, according to district documents.
The board also finalized in a 6-2 vote on Thursday a plan to use some of its federal covid-19 relief money to give support services employees a $5,000 retention incentive, including the half will be paid next November and the other half in November 2023.
The board then voted 5-3 to offer the same $5,000 retention incentive – paid over two school years – to certified employees in the district – primarily teachers. This proposal will now go to the District Personnel Policy Committee for certified personnel to be approved or rejected. Those who voted for the motion were board members Greg Adams, Michael Mason, Norma Johnson, Leigh Ann Wilson and Evelyn Callaway. Opponents were Vicki Hatter, Sandrekkia Morning and Ali Noland.
The Accredited Personnel Committee had earlier proposed to the school board that the $5,000 be paid in one school year — $2,500 in November and $2,500 next April.
Wright, the superintendent, objected. The payment spread over two school years makes the money a real employee retention incentive, not a bonus, he said.
Wright argued that a bonus funded with federal covid-19 relief money would put the district at risk of being audited for violating guidelines that special federal funding would not be used for employee bonuses.
The school board also approved the use of $1.2 million in federal covid-19 relief funds for after-school tutoring programs for elementary students. Students will be recommended for two- or three-day-a-week programs based on test data and teacher recommendations. Schools will design their own programs and apply for funds that will cover transportation, snacks, supplies and staff costs.