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Schools Concerned Over Legislation

New calculation gives more weight to students who qualify for free lunches by Rose Ann Pearce | April 5, 2013 at 3:17 a.m.

Some school superintendents in Northwest Arkansas are concerned about legislation that would cut money for economically disadvantaged students while others are planning how to use more money they could receive.

Senate Bill 811, sponsored by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, defines economically disadvantaged students as those who qualify for free or reduced price meals under federal guidelines. A calculation in the bill gives more weight to the percentage of students qualifying for free meals in the distribution of money.

Among the four largest Northwest Arkansas districts, Fayetteville and Bentonville would each lose about $1 million while Springdale and Rogers will receive additional money, according to calculations by the Arkansas Department of Education and the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas.

Springdale Superintendent James Rollins said the $2.5 million his district could receive may be used to expand the district’s prekindergarten program and to encourage more students toward careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Both initiatives are top priorities in Springdale.

While he would be glad to get additional money to help economically disadvantaged students, Rollins said the state will need to look closely at how the bill is implemented if it becomes law. He and other superintendents said school districts need time to adjust to funding cuts.

A total of $12.8 million will be cut from the categorical aid now allocated as national school lunch money. Some $196.3 million was allocated to school districts this fiscal year, according to the funding report.

By The Numbers

Funding

Most schools districts in Northwest Arkansas would lose funding for economically disadvantaged students according to proposed legislation.

Amount Percentage

Losing Money

School of the Arts $80,736 58.6

Bentonville $1.1 million 52

Elkins $184,859 61.9

Farmington $264,034 57

Fayetteville $1 million 54.4

Gravette $198,890 42.7

Greenland $8,168 3.2

Lincoln $277,937 29.6

Pea Ridge $234,965 55.5

Prairie Grove $179,541 45.5

Siloam Springs $278,922 24.8

West Fork $21,860 6.63

Gaining Money

Decatur $52,033 12.6

Gentry $22,254 4.77

Rogers $206,597 4.8

Springdale $2.5 million 36.7

Source: Arkansas Department of Education and University of Arkansas Office of Education Policy

Research shows the cost to educate economically disadvantaged students is higher, said Elkins Superintendent Megan Witonski, because those students have more issues that can impede their education.

Superintendents tend to agree that districts with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students should receive an increase in money. The concern centers on the impact that large cuts will have on the 150, or 71 percent, of the districts in Arkansas that will lose some money, Witonski said.

Elkins will lose 61.9 percent of its funding if the bill becomes law. That amounts to more than $184,000, according to the figures.

“School districts have been living on this money for 10 years,” Witonski said, adding, “Elkins puts every dollar into programs. We’re not wasting it. This bill has a lot of traction.”

“These funds are used for basic education needs,” said Charles Cudney, Greenland superintendent. His district will lose $8,168, or 3.2 percent of its money.

One of the biggest losers will be Fayetteville, which will lose about 54 percent, or just more than $1 million. That leaves funding to Fayetteville at about $800,000.

“We have poverty kids too,” said Superintendent Vicki Thomas.

Money from the national school lunch category supports the whole or partial salaries of 25 employees, including social workers, instructional facilitators and school nurses Thomas said. It’s too soon to know where cuts in Fayetteville may come.

The bill is before the Senate Education Committee. The committee heard testimony Wednesday. Local educators are concerned the bill could be passed by the legislature in the closing days of the session and take effect with Gov. Beebe’s signature before July 1.

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