State study­ing ef­fi­ciency for school spend­ing

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - Capi­tol Re­port CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Sen­a­tor

LIT­TLE ROCK — An ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee has spent the past year study­ing the ef­fi­ciency of how the state pays for im­prove­ments to pub­lic school fa­cil­i­ties.

The ad­vi­sory panel is made up of ed­u­ca­tors, con­trac­tors, en­gi­neers and ar­chi­tects. It rec­om­mended to the leg­is­la­ture’s Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tees that the state pro­vide $90 mil­lion next fis­cal year. This amount would pro­vide in­cen­tives for lo­cal school dis­tricts and con­tinue the progress that Arkansas schools have made since 2005 in up­grad­ing school cam­puses.

Law­mak­ers on the Se­nate and House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tees will take up the rec­om­men­da­tion, al­though a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the amount of fa­cil­i­ties fund­ing will be up to the en­tire Gen­eral Assem­bly.

Leg­isla­tive bud­get hear­ings be­gin in Oc­to­ber, in prepa­ra­tion for the reg­u­lar ses­sion that be­gins in Jan­uary.

Some elected of­fi­cials be­lieve that cur­rent fund­ing amounts for school fa­cil­i­ties can­not be sus­tained over the long term. Oth­ers say that the state is ob­li­gated to com­ply with its con­sti­tu­tional man­date to pro­vide ad­e­quate aca­demic fa­cil­i­ties for all chil­dren in Arkansas, re­gard­less of where they live.

That man­date in the Con­sti­tu­tion was a rea­son why the state Supreme Court ruled in fa­vor of plain­tiffs in the Lake View school fund­ing law­suit, and or­dered the state to cor­rect inequal­i­ties in school fund­ing. In re­sponse, in 2005 the Gen­eral Assem­bly au­tho­rized a mas­sive spend­ing pro­gram that has con­trib­uted to tremen­dous im­prove­ments in school fa­cil­i­ties through­out the state.

Since 2004, the state and lo­cal school dis­tricts have spent more than $6 bil­lion on fa­cil­i­ties con­struc­tion and im­prove­ments. Of that amount, 81 per­cent came from lo­cal sources, 15 per­cent came from the state and 4 per­cent from the federal gov­ern­ment.

The na­tional av­er­age of states’ share of fa­cil­i­ties costs is 18 per­cent. There are 12 states that con­trib­ute noth­ing di­rectly to the cost of lo­cal schools cap­i­tal cam­paigns, and two states that cover all of their cap­i­tal costs.

More than 1,500 old school build­ings have been re­tired. For ex­am­ple, in 2004 there were more than 500 school build­ings in use in Arkansas that were built be­fore 1950. That num­ber has been re­duced by half.

Since 2000, more than 1,600 new struc­tures have been built and more than 22 mil­lion square feet of aca­demic space has been added to Arkansas schools. In a sur­vey of prin­ci­pals, 65 per­cent said their fa­cil­i­ties were about the right size and 4 per­cent re­ported that they had more space than they needed. The other 30 per­cent re­ported that their school space was in­ad­e­quate, or was poorly dis­trib­uted.

On av­er­age, lo­cal dis­tricts exceed the min­i­mum ef­fort re­quired by state law to main­tain and op­er­ate fa­cil­i­ties, which is 9 per­cent of their foun­da­tion fund­ing. Last year that 9 per­cent amounted to $375 mil­lion statewide. How­ever, lo­cal schools ac­tu­ally spent $475 mil­lion, or 11.4 per­cent of foun­da­tion fund­ing, on main­te­nance and op­er­a­tions.

An­other po­lit­i­cal bat­tle could take place if the leg­is­la­ture con­sid­ers chang­ing the wealth index, a for­mula that de­ter­mines the per­cent­age of state funds that go into in­di­vid­ual con­struc­tion projects. The ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee heard con­cerns about the fair­ness of the index, es­pe­cially how it treats small dis­tricts that have seen en­roll­ment go down.

•••

Edi­tor’s note: Arkansas Sen­a­tor Ce­cile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third dis­trict. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee.

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