Leader Blues

Friday, April 24, 2009

TOP STORY >> Districts grapple with new funds


By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

While the Pulaski County Special School District’s $12.4 million share of the State Fiscal Stabilization Program stimulus funds could legally be used toward construction of the new school at Maumelle or perhaps Sylvan Hills, district officials hinted broadly Friday that they’d like it used for remodeling or repairing schools in each of the seven attendance zones.

As long as expenditures conform to the federal requirements, the final decision on how to spend the money at PCSSD or any school district rests entirely with the school board, according to PCSSD interim Superintendent Rob McGill.

“It is our desire in learning services and Mr. McGill’s, that every (zone, maybe every) school will get money,” said deputy superintendent Beverly Ruthven. “It is for the whole district.”

In the midst of dealing with the stimulus funds, McGill has been preparing a new application to the state Board of Education for the $81 million second-lien bond to build the two new schools.

The state board rejected that application at its April meeting. Although the state board wouldn’t routinely consider bonds again until June, McGill has been assured that it would consider a new application at its May meeting.

“I’ll present a plan to pay off the second-lien bond, a new plan going in a little bit different direction,” he said. McGill declined to elaborate until he had presented his idea to the school board, but it apparently depends less on staff cuts.

BUDGET WORKSHOP

The Pulaski board is slated for a two-day financial workshop at the central office beginning at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. McGill said important decisions could be made as the result.

Stimulus educational funds allotted to Arkansas total $560 million. Of that, PCSSD, Lonoke, Cabot, Beebe, Carlisle and England are slated to receive $32.8 million.

Including SFSF, Title I and IDEA categories, PCSSD will receive roughly $20.6 million.

Lonoke will receive about $1.76 million, with $1.03 million of that in the relatively unencumbered SFSF category.

Cabot will receive about $2.2 million in SFSF, part of a $4.9 million total.

Beebe will get about $1.3 million in SFSF, part of the $2.37 million it will receive.

England will get $2.1 million in SFSF funds, part of a $2.4 million total.

SFSF can be used for any activity authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including new construction, modernization, renovation or repair of public school facilities or to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to instructions.

Districts should use facility enhancements to support academic initiatives under stabilization funds.

MORE MONEY

In addition, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocations of the state fiscal stabilization fund program will fund improvements in Arkansas to the tune of $341 million.

Of that money, about two-thirds–$228.5 million—will be available for this year, with the balance due the following year.
PCSSD’s $12.4 million will arrive in installments of $8.3 million the first year and $4.09 million the second year.

These districts will receive the following amount, with roughly two-thirds of it the first year and one-third the second year.

Lonoke, $1.03 million; Beebe $1.3 million; Cabot $2.2 million; Carlisle $489,000 and England $2.1 million.

ZONE MEETINGS

In preparation for spending the stimulus funds, McGill and some staff and board members have held meetings in each of the zones to get ideas from parents and teachers over how best to spend the money.

Examples of ways to spend the money would be partial roof replacement at the Crystal Hill Elementary School, remodeling bathrooms at Northwood and North Pulaski and preparing Jacksonville’s Boys Middle School for the addition of girls next year.

A widespread distribution of the SFSF money for PCSSD—approximately $8 million the first year and $4 million the second year—could help ease tensions among board members, each of whom advocates vigorously for the patrons in their far-flung zones.

CABOT STIMULUS

Cabot is eligible for $4.9 million, although there’s been no decision on how the money will be spent, only that it must be spent by Dec. 20, 2011. Not all uses are allowed.

For example, the money shouldn’t be used for salaries unless a district has the money to keep funding those salaries. The state gets to decide based on whether the answer is “yes” to these questions:

– Will it invest in the economy?

– Is it a one-time, short-term (no longer than two years) investment with long-term benefits?

– Is the expenditure allowable under the funding mechanism?

– Can the school district define (through performance measures) how the program, activity or item proposed can lead to improved student academic achievement?

Kelly Hayes, comptroller for the Cabot School District, said Thursday that the staff has been brainstorming since they learned that the money would be available. Some of the suggested uses: wiring for older buildings to allow for upgraded technology, updated technology and new heat and air units to save on electricity.

The earliest the spending plan can be submitted to the state is May 15, Hayes said.

The only caveat that could be problematic for some districts, he said, is that the state will only send 5-percent of the money initially and the district will have to fund the rest, then get reimbursement from the state.

BEEBE FUNDING

Beebe is eligible for $2.4 million and it most will likely go for improved technology, Dr. Belinda Shook, school superintendent, said.

“We’ve had two meetings with the administrators from the schools, and they’ve been meeting with their teachers,” she said.

“And we’ve decided to focus on technology that will enhance student achievement.”

LONOKE COMMITTEE

Lonoke Superintendent John Tackett met Thursday with principals and formed a district committee to propose options for use of the SFSF stimulus money.

Lonoke is also beginning some major construction, but the state has not yet said whether it will partner with the district to cover much of the cost.

The district plans to demolish the existing science building and construct a 20-room addition on the east side of the main high school complex.

“The crux is we’ll use Title I and IDEA (money) to put Lonoke in position to provide services that are innovative and reflect what we’d have to do five years down the road,” Tackett said.

Money could be used to catch up with technology by purchasing equipment that would help the students.

For instance, the district could buy equipment to digitally measure pH and then use laptops to run data sequences, he said.
He said the district would consider technology for distance learning, with college graduate students working with students on writing.

ELECTRONIC BOOKS

“We’ve talked about Kindles—which would electronically download books,” Tackett said.

“We’ve formed a stimulus review committee to make sure we understand what the requirements are for expenditures and what are our needs in Lonoke,” Tackett said.

Then, he said, the committee will consider “How can we bring the two together to get the best outcomes?

“We have to do what’s most efficient and effective, not just spend a lot of money,” Tackett said.

They would look at outcomes and “bang for the buck,” he said, while abiding by restrictions, guidelines and providing transparency and accountability.

Leader staff writer Joan McCoy contributed to this report.