FAYETTEVILLE — An analysis by a children's advocacy group shows many of the state's school districts are not spending all the money they receive annually for poverty programs to help poor school children.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families said the state's school districts left more than $25 million unspent in the 2008-09 fiscal year.
School officials in Northwest Arkansas said the figures used in the study are accurate. However, they add the figures don't tell the whole story.
In Fayetteville, for instance, the study shows the district didn't spend more than $150,000 in National School Lunch Act categorical funding from the state during the 2008-09 fiscal year. The federal act provides funding that allows schools to initiate programs designed to help children in poverty improve their academic achievement.
That advocacy group is right, said Lisa Morstad, chief financial officer for the Fayetteville district.
The money was rolled over and used in the 2009-10 fiscal year as a new literacy initiative was launched by the district, she added.
"We stopped doing what we were doing" in 2008-09 to have the money available for the 2009-10 implementation of the literacy program, Morstad said.
The National School Lunch Act funding allocates a specific dollar amount to school districts, based on the number of students who are eligible for free and reduced price school meals. That eligibility is often used as a measure of poverty within a district or an individual school.
Fayetteville received $1.4 million in poverty funding during the year, the group analyzed, and spent $1.2 million, leaving a $202,092 balance.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families contend that is money that can be used for other programs to help close the achievement gap for students in poverty.
"Many school districts are rolling over poverty funds from year to year instead of investing in proven programs that help close the educational achievement gap between minority and poor children and their peers," the group said in a news release last week.
Only 31 of the 257 Arkansas school districts and charter schools spent all their poverty money in the year it was intended, according to the report. Pea Ridge School District is the only Northwest Arkansas school district to spend all its money in the intended year.
Rogers came close, leaving a balance of only $2, according to the report. Rogers received $3.7 million, spent $1.7 million and transferred the $2 million balance to programs such as school health and before- and after-school and summer programs.
Ashley Siwiec, a Rogers School District spokeswoman, said the money was spread between math and literacy programs for facilitators in elementary and secondary schools, instructional assistants, tutors and reading improvement software programs.
The district also hired social workers and nurses, beyond state requirements; implemented a high school credit recovery program for students needing to catch up on their credits for graduation; developed parent involvement; and offered experiential field trips to students, Siwiec said.
Bentonville uses its poverty funds to pay the salaries and benefits of staff for remediation in literacy and math in qualifying schools. Other funding sources are directed toward early childhood education and before- and after-school and summer programs, said Sterling Ming, executive director for finance.
"Historically, we have carried a balance of approximately $150,000 to $190,000 for possible personnel raises after the school year begins, usual increases in enrollment that necessitates more staff and other unforeseen expenses," he said.
Bentonville has the lowest districtwide poverty rate among schools in Benton and Washington counties, with 26 percent of its students in 2008-09 eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The district received $1.6 million in poverty funding and carried over $159,845 of that.
Tara Manthey, spokesman for the children's advocate group, said the study shows there is money available to fund programs in school health, before- and after-school programs, summer programs and early childhood education -- all areas for targeted assistant to children in poverty.
The agency, during the 2009 legislative session, backed legislation to restrict school districts from rolling over more than 20 percent of their categorical aid, intended to help children in poverty, who are English-language learners or who are in alternative learning environments. A fourth category of funding is intended to pay for professional development for teachers.
The children's advocate group plans to push for the restrictions in the new legislative session, due to start in January. Only one school district in Northwest Arkansas exceeds the proposed limit -- Decatur at 26 percent -- while Lincoln had a fund rollover of 20 percent, according to the report.
Kelly Hayes, comptroller in the Springdale School District, said school districts get an amount per child in each of the four categories. In the poverty category, also known as National School Lunch Act funding, school districts with a poverty rate at 70 percent or lower receive a set amount of money. That amount doubles if the poverty rate is between 70 percent and 90 percent and triples, if the poverty rate is between 90 percent and 100 percent.
Regulations on the use of the money allow poverty money to be transferred to another category. In Springdale's case, the money is used for English-language learners, some of whom are considered in poverty.
The money the district receives for English language learners is not sufficient, Hayes said. In 2009, the regulations allowed Springdale to transfer about $1 million from the poverty category to the English language learner category.
Some English language learners also qualify for the poverty programs.
Some 41 percent of the district's students were categorized as English-language learners in the 2008-09 school year; the free and reduced rate was 56 percent.
Springdale received $4.7 million, spent $3.7 million and had a balance of $154,333. Another $1.3 million was transferred into English language learner and alternative learning programs, Hayes said.
"We actually spent more because we had $490,000 at the start of the year," he said. Most of the money in Springdale is spent on staffing.
In Fayetteville, the money was used for salaries for literacy coaches, literacy coordinators and literacy interventionists, said Linda Auman, chief academic officer for the district. Reading intervention software was purchased and additional school nurses and counselors were hired, she added.
"We can use this money for schools that don't receive Title I money," Auman said, referring to federal funding to schools with a free and reduced-price lunch poverty rate above 35 percent. "This money helps poor kids throughout the district."