LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Thursday took back the authority they gave for the state to distribute about $460 million in remaining federal COVID-19 relief funds to school districts, saying they want schools to use the money for teacher and staff bonuses.
The move faced opposition from Democrats who said it was an effort to avoid considering raising teacher salaries while the state sits on a $1.6 billion surplus. It was also criticized by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said lawmakers didn’t have authority to take such a step.
The Legislative Council voted to rescind the appropriation for the federal funds, and recommended schools use the money for bonuses. The council said the districts’ plans for spending the money will now have to go before a legislative panel. The council recommended districts use the funds to provide $5,000 one-time bonuses to teachers and $2,500 to staff.
Senate President Jimmy Hickey said some districts were unaware they could use the funds for the bonuses.
“Obviously now there’s not going to be any question that it can be done,” Hickey, a Republican, said. “They’re going to all have to get together to make this work.”
The move came as Democrats and teachers’ groups are pushing for teacher salary increases to be on the agenda when the Legislature convenes next month for a special session focused on tax cuts.
“It seems to be we’re working hard just to not face up to raising the salaries when we can,” Democratic Sen. Keith Ingram said.
Hutchinson earlier this year proposed raising teacher salaries. But Hutchinson said he wouldn’t put raises on the agenda for the special session, citing a lack of support in the majority-GOP Legislature.
Republican legislative leaders have said the special session isn’t the right time for the issue since the Legislature hasn’t completed its annual review of education funding required by law. That review is used to issue recommendations on school funding increases and includes a look at teacher salaries.
Hutchinson said he was disappointed by the council’s decision and said the panel can’t undo an appropriation they’ve already approved. Under the new approach, some districts’ priorities may not get approved, he said.
“I am concerned that teachers in some districts will get a bonus, but others may not,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “The creative approach by the committee today while well-intentioned is not the best approach to helping our teachers.”
Arkansas has raised teacher salaries over the past several years, and the minimum teacher salary for the coming school year is $36,000. Proponents of the pay raise have noted that base salaries in most of the states adjoining Arkansas are higher.