An advisory committee has spent the past year studying the efficiency of how the state pays for improvements to public school facilities.
The advisory panel is made up of educators, contractors, engineers and architects. It recommended to the legislature’s Education Committees that the state provide $90 million next fiscal year. This amount would provide incentives for local school districts and continue the progress that Arkansas schools have made since 2005 in upgrading school campuses.
Lawmakers on the Senate and House Education Committees will take up the recommendation, although a final decision on the amount of facilities funding will be up to the entire General Assembly.
Legislative budget hearings begin in October, in preparation for the regular session that begins in January.
Some elected officials believe that current funding amounts for school facilities cannot be sustained over the long term. Others say that the state is obligated to comply with its constitutional mandate to provide adequate academic facilities for all children in Arkansas, regardless of where they live.
That mandate in the Constitution was a reason why the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in the Lake View school funding lawsuit, and ordered the state to correct inequalities in school funding. In response, in 2005 the General Assembly authorized a massive spending program that has contributed to tremendous improvements in school facilities throughout the state.
Since 2004, the state and local school districts have spent more than $6 billion on facilities construction and improvements. Of that amount, 81 percent came from local sources, 15 percent came from the state and 4 percent from the federal government.
The national average of states’ share of facilities costs is 18 percent. There are 12 states that contribute nothing directly to the cost of local schools capital campaigns, and two states that cover all of their capital costs.
More than 1,500 old school buildings have been retired. For example, in 2004 there were more than 500 school buildings in use in Arkansas that were built before 1950. That number has been reduced by half.
Since 2000, more than 1,600 new structures have been built and more than 22 million square feet of academic space has been added to Arkansas schools. In a survey of principals, 65 percent said their facilities were about the right size and 4 percent reported that they had more space than they needed. The other 30 percent reported that their school space was inadequate, or was poorly distributed.
On average, local districts exceed the minimum effort required by state law to maintain and operate facilities, which is 9 percent of their foundation funding. Last year that 9 percent amounted to $375 million statewide. However, local schools actually spent $475 million, or 11.4 percent of foundation funding, on maintenance and operations.
Another political battle could take place if the legislature considers changing the wealth index, a formula that determines the percentage of state funds that go into individual construction projects. The advisory committee heard concerns about the fairness of the index, especially how it treats small districts that have seen enrollment go down.