The Little Rock School District Board on Thursday voted to pay all district employees who can show proof of vaccination a $300 one-time bonus. It also approved the LRSD’s COVID-19 sick leave policy, which is similar to last year’s, rather than a more punitive plan that had been floated before the third surge of the coronavirus in Arkansas.
But how else the LRSD will keep children and educators safe during the pandemic remains a work in progress. Deputy Superintendent Keith McGee told the board that it’s waiting on the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide guidance before the district can finalize its plan.
During a public comment period, several parents echoed the concerns of thousands of families in Arkansas: What can the LRSD do about the new law that prohibits masks mandates? Board member Ali Noland, an attorney, said she’d asked district attorneys to study it and whether it’s enforceable. She said she wasn’t in favor of simply defying the law, but might support the board pursuing a lawsuit if there was a legal avenue. Attorney Tom Mars has said he plans to file suit challenging the law.
McGee said the LRSD is in discussions with the state to figure out what it might be able to offer to eligible students to incentivize them to get vaccinated.
He said, based on surveys from parents, the LRSD expects to have 423 students enrolled in the new virtual Ignite Digital Academy in grades K-6 and 235 in 7-12. But those could change significantly as the LRSD will let families register students in the academy all the way to the first day of school. Superintendent Mike Poore said that was rare in the state. Initially, the district planned to require students to commit to the virtual academy for a year, but now it’s only asking for a semester commitment. Board member Jeff Wood had previously suggested adding further flexibility and someone during public comment suggested allowing students to return to in-person learning at nine weeks. But Poore said that would be too logistically challenging. By guaranteeing that students in the digital academy can return to the school where they were previously enrolled, that already puts significant pressure on district staff, Poore said.
The board won’t take a final vote on whether to ask voters to approve a millage extension until sometime in August, but on Thursday, it voted to pursue a plan that would generate $300 million in capital projects. Earlier in the month, Stephens Inc. prepared a presentation for the board that showed a range of money the financing could generate with $300 million at the upper end of the options. The more money raised means the LRSD will be on the hook for higher debt payments. The administration and board members will now hold a series of community meetings to get feedback on how $300 million should be spent if and when the board votes to put the millage plan to a vote.
Here’s that schedule with each meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m.:
July 29 at Southwest High School
Aug. 3 Pinnacle View Middle School
Aug. 4 Hall STEAM Magnet High School
Aug. 5 Central High School
Aug. 9 Parkview High School
Atop the LRSD plans for the money generated from the millage is construction of a new K-8 campus at the former home of McClellan High School. The estimated cost is $85 million. The new school would bring in the students who now attend Cloverdale Middle School and Baseline and Meadowcliff elementary schools.
At its work session earlier in the month, board members and Poore talked about the potential of building a West Little Rock High School. Poore signaled on Thursday that the administration will likely suggest that it be included in the list of planned expenditures for the millage extension proposal.
All LRSD employees are likely to receive a significant pay raise over the course of three years with the hikes beginning next school year. The board heard a presentation on a new salary schedule that would make the LRSD competitive with other large districts in the state. But the board won’t formally approve it until October.
Where starting teachers in Little Rock last year made $36,000, next school year they’d make $43,000. And by the 2023/2024 school year, they’d earn $48,000. Teachers are paid based on educational attainment and years in the classroom on a salary schedule. Under this plan, teachers would make 2% more than this new starting amount for every year of teaching service and 2.5% more for higher levels of educational attainment. The plan also calls for at least a 3% raise for all other employees. (You can read background on the plan and see the proposed salary schedule beginning on page 61 of the board’s agenda.)
The compensation plan isn’t contingent on voters approving the millage extension, Kelsey Bailey, chief financial officer, told the board. But it does require “right-sizing” the district if enrollment declines. That could include reducing staff or closing schools.
Board member Greg Adams said he supported the vision of the proposal, but said he was concerned about closing schools. “I want to be really clear,” he said. “If we vote for these salary increases, we are in a sense we are committing to this right-sizing plan because otherwise we’ll paint ourselves into a corner.”
Bailey said that in general “right-sizing” is something the district should be doing anyway, regardless of the compensation increase. He said he was hopeful the district would see enrollment growth in the coming years.