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story.lead_photo.caption Griffin Kelley (from right), Eric Wang and Sonia Bithen, all third-graders in Karen Swalley’s class at Bernice Young Elementary School, read Friday as part of their nonfiction unit of study at the Springdale school. The school benefits from the Arkansas School Recognition Program. The school received about $275,000 since the program started in 2013 and used much of its reward money on books for classroom libraries. - Photo by David Gottschalk

Millions of dollars have flowed into Northwest Arkansas schools over the past four years through the state's School Recognition Program, providing extra money for equipment, supplies and professional development.

At least one superintendent, however, is concerned about the time it's taking for his schools to spend that money.

The Fayetteville School District has received close to $1.7 million from the program, which annually rewards public schools ranked high in terms of achievement and improvement on state-required math and literacy tests.

Superintendent Matthew Wendt said the schools have a combined $444,000 in reward money they haven't spent. That's more than one-fourth of all the recognition money they've received over the four years. Wendt said he expects the schools will receive another $125,000 this school year.

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"So I am going to have a conversation with the appropriate principals and others about receiving dollars and then sitting on the dollars and maybe not utilizing those for that school," Wendt said at the Sept. 28 Fayetteville School Board meeting.

Fayetteville schools with the largest balances also are the ones that received the most money. They include Vandergriff Elementary School, which has $134,653 of the $356,801 it has received, and Woodland Junior High School, which has $99,067 left of the $352,272 received, according to figures the district provided last month.

David McClure, principal at Woodland Junior High School, was out of the office last week. An email sent Wednesday and a phone message left Friday for Andrea Sego, principal of Vandergriff, weren't returned by 7 p.m. Friday.

Wendt said about 80 percent of the money has been spent on Chromebook laptop computers. The rest paid for software, professional development and teacher and student supplies.

He suggested the schools with large balances could get together and decide to "spread the love" to benefit schools in the district that have received little or no recognition money.

McNair Middle School has received recognition money each of the past four years, a total of $329,888.

Michelle Hayward, who was McNair's principal before becoming the district's director of elementary and middle level education this year, said the school spent the money primarily on Chromebooks. It spent some of the money last year on creating a flexible learning environment, one that emphasizes comfortable furniture. Standing desks, rocking chairs and stationary-bike desks were among the purchases, she said.

"The furniture is movable. It encourages collaboration," Hayward said. "We know all of us enjoy being comfortable and everybody has different ways of sitting and collaborating. That was something our staff really bought into."

McNair had $72,734 left in recognition money to spend as of last month.

The district is considering how each school will spend the rest of its money, Hayward said.

Spending by committee

Act 1429 of 2013, revised by Act 854 of 2015, authorizes the state to annually reward schools ranked in the top 10 percent of the state's more than 1,000 schools in terms of achievement and gains on the state tests. High schools with the highest graduation rates also are rewarded.

Schools ranked in the top 5 percent in achievement and in achievement gains are provided $100 per student. Schools that rank in the next 5 percent are eligible for rewards of $50 per student.

The law directs each winning school to form a committee of the principal, a teacher selected by the faculty and a parent representative to decide how the money will be spent.

The money must be spent on either nonrecurring bonuses to faculty and staff members, material and equipment to maintain and improve student achievement or on the temporary employment of personnel to help maintain and raise student achievement. Committees must send their spending plans to the Arkansas Department of Education for approval.

The law doesn't mandate the money be spent within a certain amount of time.

The state distributed $6.7 million in recognition money last year, about $2 million of which went to Northwest Arkansas schools.

Northwest Arkansas schools have earned a little more than $9 million over the past four years. The Bentonville School District is the biggest beneficiary, receiving $3.5 million so far. Fayetteville is second at close to $1.7 million, followed closely by Rogers with $1.6 million.

Other districts

Thirteen Bentonville schools have a combined $590,617 in recognition money they've yet to spend. Nearly all of that is money awarded last year, and it will be spent this school year, according to Janet Schwanhausser, the district's finance director.

Though the recognition money is typically announced in the fall, schools don't receive it until the following April, Schwanhausser said. She asks principals to spend it by the end of the next year, she said.

Bentonville High School is one of the few high schools in the state that has earned recognition money. It received $418,103 two years ago. Principal Jack Loyd said most of the money went for Chromebooks. The school also bought calculators for math students and iPads for the band program.

Springdale schools have received $889,215. Hunt Elementary School, Young Elementary School and Hellstern Middle School have a combined $265,025 left. Their balances consist mostly of what they received in the past year, said Rick Schaeffer, district communications director.

Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, said she likes that the money goes directly to schools rather than the districts. District-level administrators have no input on how the money is spent.

"That's almost unheard of," she said.

The Office for Education Policy is interested in knowing how the schools are spending that money.

"I think mandating the money get spent in a certain amount of time is less relevant than making sure it's being spent on something important to the school," McKenzie said.

She noted the geographic spread of the money is a concern. Last year, 80 percent of the schools receiving recognition money were in the northwest or central regions of the state. Those two regions account for 60 percent of schools in the state, McKenzie said.

She hopes schools not included in the most recent round of awards examine the data to see which schools similar to them got an award.

Bellview Elementary School in Rogers has received recognition money each year, including $90,200 last year.

"We established that we want to do something for the kids, something for the teachers and something for the school in general that benefits the kids and teachers," said Principal Dan Cox, explaining the school's spending philosophy.

Bellview is awaiting delivery of $43,000 in playground equipment. The school also gave each certified staff member $1,000 to use for their classroom. Teachers submit their proposals to him about how they will use the money.

"It's really at their discretion, as long as it's staying at the school," Cox said. "They have throughout the year to spend that money."

Bellview also spends much of its money on professional development and hiring substitute teachers to cover the regular teachers while they are attending the development opportunities, he said.

Lowell Elementary School, part of the Rogers district, received $152,494 over the past four years.

Shannon Passmore, Lowell's principal, said the school used some of the money to buy electronic devices. The school is close to having one device -- either a laptop or a tablet -- per child, she said.

Lowell also has spent its money on professional development and to extend the hours of two part-time employees who help in the classrooms and tutor small groups of students.

The other big category of spending has been items to support teaching science standards. When teachers do lessons on science, technology, engineering and math, "a lot of that requires things that are not in our regular budget," Passmore said.

NW News on 10/15/2017

Print Headline: Superintendent raises concern about reward cash flow

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