Education committee raises minimum teacher salaries but squeezes school district budgets | Arkansas Blog

Monday, October 27, 2014

Education committee raises minimum teacher salaries but squeezes school district budgets

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 5:40 PM

A QUALIFIED INCREASE: Sen. Uvalde Lindsey
  • A QUALIFIED INCREASE: Sen. Uvalde Lindsey
Every two years, prior to the regular legislative session, the joint Education Committee must agree upon its "adequacy report" before any other fiscal decisions for the state of Arkansas can be made. It's part of the Lake View court ruling, which requires the legislature to determine the cost of providing an "adequate and equitable" education to kids in Arkansas and fully fund that amount as the first step of the state budgeting process.

Today, the committee wrapped up its recommendations for the 2014 adequacy report, which will determine the public school budget for the next two years. It made four changes to the past year's adequacy recommendations, all of which passed on unanimous votes:

  • An increase to the minimum amount that school districts may pay teachers, from $29,244 to $31,000, although lawmakers committed less funding to pay for that salary increase than expected: about $16.5 million.
  • An increase to NSLA funding (allocated to schools based on their number of low-income students), although by less than 1 percent. NSLA has been kept flat in recent years; this would raise it by about $1.7 million.
  • A commitment to fund urgent school facilities improvements identified by an independent commission. The current price tag for approved projects is $65 million, although that amount could rise significantly (or possibly fall).
  • A commitment to replace the $16 million in facilities funding that the legislature shifted to the public school employee insurance system last fall. That money should be restored to facilities, though it's not clear where it would come from.

More on the first of those items, teacher salaries, after the jump.

Interim committee chair Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) noted that Arkansas's now ranks 12th out of 16 Southern states in teacher pay. There's also a huge disparity between starting salary for teachers in Arkansas, depending which district the teacher works in. Springdale starts its teachers at almost $46,000. As of the 2012-13 school year, there were 82 77 districts statewide that paid under $31,000, and a few that paid the lowest amount allowable under current state law, which is $29,244. (Here's a comprehensive report on Arkansas teacher salary from March of this year.)

The Education Committee today said that minimum should be raised to $31,000 over the next two years. The steps within the minimum teacher salary schedule, which are determined by years of experience, will remain the same. For example, a second-year teacher in one of the lowest salaried districts currently makes a minimum of $29,694, or $450 more than he did in his first year. Under the new schedule, he'd instead make $31,450 in his second year. (Note — some of the figures originally stated about the number of districts paying the minimum salary were inaccurate and have been updated.)

Yet the state isn't increasing its budget by the total amount of the estimated salary increase statewide. Legislative staff estimates that — when the differences in pay between different years of experience are accounted for — the increased salary schedule will cost about $1,888 more per teacher. The legislature today voted to increase funding by only about $848 per teacher.

The reason, said Sen. Uvalde Lindsey (D-Fayetteville), who made the motion to increase minimum salaries, is that districts bear a part of the blame in keeping teacher pay low. It's true that the districts which reward teachers handsomely tend to have a lot of local revenue in the form of a healthy tax base. But it's not a direct correlation — there are poor districts that pay teachers more than the minimum, and more affluent ones that pay very little over the minimum.

This gets tricky because of how the state funds school districts. In the name of preserving districts' autonomy over their own budgets, the legislature uses what's often called a "funding model" rather than an "expenditure model." The state doesn't get to tell a district how to spend most of its money on an item by item basis. Instead, the state only determines how much to fund — that is, how much money a district needs based on how many kids are in the district — and essentially writes a check for that amount. (The state does also provide funds to districts that are more restricted in use, such as NSLA, but the bulk of school funds is unrestricted.)

In other words, the state can set a minimum salary for new teachers, but it cannot compel that district to actually spend every dollar intended for teacher salaries on teacher salaries. 

Republican Sen. Alan Clark, a fiscal conservative, has asked in the past for information about how much money districts spend on salary versus how much the state slated for those salaries. Legislative staff today said the estimated average gap is $1,040. Therefore, said Sen. Lindsey (who stated his agreement with Clark on this issue), the committee's recommendation today was to raise the state's per-teacher funding by only $848, which is $1,888 minus $1,040.

Lindsey's motion also states that "districts would be required to annually report in a public meeting the amount of funding the General Assembly has provided for teacher salaries" so that school staff will know the state has provided additional money for their salaries. He said he wanted all teachers to understand that their salaries should potentially be increasing by $848 over the next two years. "I'd love to be able to tell every teacher in Arkansas that fact ... [that increase] should be coming to them," Lindsey said.

Districts won't like this. Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) pointed out that "districts also draw funds for teachers salaries from other places" in their budgets — in other words, although some districts may not use their salary allocation as intended, there are others who draw from additional funding streams to supplement their teacher pay. And, say advocates for districts, local needs are diverse — some districts may be using a portion of their salary funding for other urgent purposes, such as hiring additional staff other than teachers. The committee's decision today interposes the legislature into the personnel decisions of districts to an additional degree.

“By working out the funding increase based on districts not paying the average salary, it makes the mandated increase not totally funded," said Ron Harder, of the Arkansas School Board Association, "and it takes us one step closer to an expenditure model.”

Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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