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The Little Rock School District is planning to cut its budget by $5 million for the 2018-19 school year because of declining enrollment and a loss in funding, its superintendent said Friday.

The state's largest district lost about 400 students from the 2016-17 school year to this school year's 22,338 students. It fell below a threshold that determines how much funds the district receives in part because parents with eligible children weren't turning in the forms to receive free and reduced-cost meals, Superintendent Mike Poore said.

The loss in a special category of state funding will amount to about $3 million and will be offset in part by a reduction in staffing, he said. It also will affect the amount of bonuses awarded to the district's educators who have national certification, said the president of the Little Rock Education Association union for teachers and support staff members.

The anticipated $5 million in budget cuts follows on the heels of about $11 million in reductions that were made for the current school year, and $43 million over the past four years. Those cuts -- including the closings of three schools and the reconfiguring of a fourth -- are the result of steady enrollment declines as well as the end of state desegregation aid to the district.

The special state desegregation aid to the district -- $37.3 million a year -- ends this school year, according to the terms of a 2014 settlement agreement in a long-running federal desegregation lawsuit. This year's aid is restricted to use for school construction and repairs.

The losses will come as two new charter schools within the district's boundaries are opening with capacity for nearly 600 students and as the district opens Pinnacle View Middle School to eighth-graders, who had been exiting the system to attend elsewhere. This is also happening as the district enters its fourth year under state control.

"We feel like we can compete," Poore said. "We have great stories of schools improving academically, and we think we're a great choice in terms of something that's on the rise."

The district is currently putting together its budget for the next fiscal year as it gets snippets of information, such as December registration and this month's high school course registration. District officials will know by May how much it will need to reduce its staff and where, Poore said.

"On the building level, that's really driven by the loss of students," he said. "On the other side of it, we have to tighten our belts a little bit more on the central administration aspect of it to live through it."

He added that the district is flush in some positions compared with state recommendations. As an example, the state recommends one assistant principal for every 450 children, he said. Some of Little Rock's schools -- particularly the secondary ones -- are currently overstaffed under that formula.

Each of the secondary schools has at least one extra assistant principal, while some have two, said Teresa Gordon, the union president. Slimming down in that regard, she said, will trim $1 million from the district's budget.

The district will "be fine" in terms of keeping its teachers, Gordon said.

"Obviously, enrollment is going to affect staffing because if you don't have the kids, you don't need the teachers," she said. "We go through this every year. We displace some and end up having to hire at the beginning of the next year somewhere between 75 and 125 new teachers.

"Nobody gets cut. They get displaced, and so they have to go to a new position."

And attrition adds even more open positions, she said.

Besides the enrollment decline, two new charter schools -- ScholarMade Achievement Place and Einstein Charter School -- are opening their doors in 2018-19.

The state allowed ScholarMade to serve kindergarten through ninth grade with a maximum enrollment cap of 520 students, starting with 290 in kindergarten through fifth grade this coming year. The state also approved Einstein to take in as many as 600 kindergarten-through-seventh-grade students, starting with 300 in kindergarten through third grade this coming year.

ScholarMade will open in Little Rock's former Mitchell Elementary, 2410 S. Battery St., and Einstein will open in Little Rock's former Garland School, 3615 W. 25th St.

New eStem charter elementary and junior high campuses on Shall Street also will open this fall.

Other than enrollment, the Little Rock district saw a tumble in the reported percentage of its students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. The percentage dictates how much special funding -- based on the National School Lunch Act -- the district will get per student.

A district with less than 70 percent national school lunch recipients will receive $526 per student; one with between 70 percent and 90 percent will get $1,051 per student; and one with 90 percent and above will get $1,576 per student, said Greg Rogers, assistant commissioner of fiscal and administrative services in the state Education Department.

Should a school district fall or rise between the percentage brackets, it would not stand to lose or gain the full amount in one year, he said. Rather, the district would transition to the amount specified under each bracket over three years.

The district received $17.9 million through the program in 2016-17 and was projected to get $16.9 million this year, according to state aid notices published by the Arkansas Department of Education.

The percentage for the Little Rock district had been on a downward trend over the years: about 81 percent of its students qualified for free and reduced lunches in 2015-16, while nearly 71 percent qualified the next year and 67 percent qualified in the 2017-18 academic year, according to state data.

"You know, for us to say the district's below 70 percent free and reduced lunch, that's remarkable because that's just not our existence," Poore said. "We have ... a very small amount [of schools] that's below the 70 percent threshold, and you know, a huge majority that are above 70 percent."

The forms don't come out until July, and families have gotten used to the district providing free food services for all students at some of its schools, he said, adding that parents likely were not filling out the forms that are due Oct. 1.

"We really need that because it's a huge benefit to our district, not only on what we get for our food service program, but then also, obviously, that money also filters into our instructional program," he said.

Districts cannot use the funds to meet state accreditation standards or minimum teachers' salaries, Rogers said. The money can be put toward anything that will help close achievement gaps, such as before- or after-school care or reducing class-size ratios, he said.

The Little Rock district will try to recoup the special state funds for the 2019-20 school year, Poore said, in part by pushing parents to fill out the paperwork. He said he's already talked with staff members, principals and counselors about the matter.

"It really needs to be everyone and then, you know, we'll make sure that we push out aggressively in July, once we get the paperwork, making sure that there's multiple times and places that people are seeing this document that they can go fill out," he said.

National school lunch percentages are also tied to the amount of bonuses awarded to educators who have national certification. The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards gives the decade-long certification to "accomplished" educators to continuously improve the nation's schools, according to its website.

The Little Rock district had 171 National Board certified teachers before this year, Gordon said, adding it had the highest numbers in the state.

Teachers certified before Jan. 1 will receive $5,000 per year as long as they maintain the status, said Kimberly Friedman, a spokesman for the state Education Department. After Jan. 1, those who were previously certified or recertified by that date will still earn $5,000 annually for the life of the certificate, she said.

But those teaching in a high-poverty school in a high-poverty district will earn $10,000 as an annual incentive, she said. Candidates who certify this year will start receiving a bonus in spring 2019 of $2,500 a year for five years if they work in a low-poverty school; $5,000 a year for five years if they work in a high-poverty school; and $10,000 a year for a decade if they work in a high-poverty school in a high-poverty district, she said.

High poverty is defined as those schools or districts where 70 percent or more of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Gordon did not know Friday how many National Board certified teachers in the district the change would affect.

Also Friday, the Little Rock Education Association unanimously approved a district-planned $1,000 one-time bonus for its non-administrative, certified and classified employees, Gordon said. The request will be now be forwarded to Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who acts in place of an elected school board for the Little Rock school system.

"We haven't had any financial negotiations at all since the state takeover," she said. "I always think that we can do more but you know the priority is, of course, the schools and the students, but I think its going to go a long way for employee morale and for employees feeling appreciated."

Information for this report was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 02/10/2018

Print Headline: Losing pupils, LR's schools to cut $5M

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