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FARMINGTON -- Superintendents had a chance Thursday to hear a state official explain a proposal to change the way state money is distributed for school facility projects.

One superintendent voiced concern about the plan. Another suggested an alternative.

Facilities Program

Arkansas has contributed to school construction and replacement costs since 2004 when the state Public School Academic Facilities Program was established in the wake of an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that the public school system — including school buildings — was inadequate and inequitable and, as a result, unconstitutional.

Source: Staff Report

Brad Montgomery, director of the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, spoke at a meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative's board, which consists of area superintendents.

Montgomery explained a proposal to rewrite the rules on the state's financial assistance for facilities. The proposal was the result of a year of study by the Advisory Committee on Public School Academic Facilities, which released its 73-page report in July.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said the state cannot sustain its average annual investment of $102 million in the facilities program. The committee was charged with recommending a consistent annual dollar amount the state could afford, Montgomery said.

The committee recommended partnership program funding be budgeted at $90 million per year.

Another recommendation is to change the wealth index -- used to determine what share of the cost of an approved building project the state will pay -- so small districts with declining enrollments stand to receive more than fast-growing districts.

Bryan Law, superintendent of the Farmington School District, said under the proposal, "some are winners and some are losers." Farmington would go from being eligible for 60 percent state assistance on facility projects to 51.1 percent.

"I don't understand exactly how we came to that conclusion that the schools that are growing and have been growing and continue to grow are getting cut," Law said.

Farmington's enrollment has grown about 15 percent in the past 10 years. Lack of facility funding may force high-growth districts to install portable classroom buildings, Law said.

"And we're going to have people moving in from Texas, and we're going to tell them, 'Come to our school district, but you're going to have to be in a portable building.' And they're going to go on down the road," he said.

Bentonville qualifies to receive state aid for 34.5 percent of a building's cost. The proposed change would shrink that to 0.5 percent.

Bentonville administrators have expressed deep concern because it would cost the district millions of dollars more to construct a building. Bentonville's enrollment has increased nearly 40 percent in the past 10 years.

Debbie Jones, Bentonville's superintendent, told Montgomery about a tweak to the system Bentonville has offered. The idea is to have two pots of money: one to pay for buildings needed because of enrollment growth, and the other for maintenance or replacement of buildings. The wealth index would apply to the first pot, and the newly suggested index would apply to the second.

"It's simple. Everyone can understand that," Jones said.

Montgomery said he would need to test the model Jones suggested using data from past funding cycles.

Jones added the Marvell-Elaine School District -- noted in the committee's report as one that suffers under the wealth index -- spends three times as much per student as Bentonville does. Shrinking districts must make difficult moves, such as closing buildings and cutting staff, to remain efficient, she said.

Montgomery agreed growth districts will have to be addressed in some fashion. He urged those with concerns to make their opinions heard.

Of the 18 people who served on the advisory committee, five were superintendents. None of those superintendents represented high-growth districts, Montgomery said.

NW News on 10/05/2018

Print Headline: Superintendents give feedback on funding proposal

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