Dressed in red for “Wear Red to Ed”, Arkansas educators are marching to the State Capitol this morning for a sit in rally.
— Frederick Price (@_fredericktv) July 21, 2022
In a move decried as a “bait and switch” by several legislators, the Arkansas Legislative Council this morning approved a proposal by Sen.Jimmy Hickey for a process to allow a $5,000 bonus to teachers from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds.
The proposal has the Legislative Council take control of about $460 million remaining in a $500 million federal allotment previously given to the state Education Department for distribution to school districts. Now a legislative committee will decide how that money is spent.
Hickey proposed providing $5,000 each for teachers; $2,500 for full-time classified staff, and for part-time classified workers, half of the bonus given a comparable full-time employee.
Asked for an estimate of the cost, Hickey said he was unable to provide that, but it would be less than the money available. Rep. Megan Godfrey also questioned Hickey on whether the proposal conflicts with federal requirements that school districts have flexibility on use of the money.
Districts would have to apply for the money and the legislative committee would decide approval. A district also must provide a statement of why it was unable or unwilling to do so if they choose not to seek the money.
Democratic Sens. Joyce Elliott and Keith Ingram, Rep. David Whittaker, independent Sen. Jim Hendren, and Republican Rep. Jim Wooten questioned the move. Several called it a “bait and switch” to cover for the legislature’s wish to avoid spending state money on teachers at a coming special legislative session, preferring to devote the session solely to an income tax primarily benefitting the wealthy. They also criticized giving the legislature control of school district spending of the emergency money, particularly since many district might have already made other plans.
“This is a bait and switch. We’re gonna give somebody a bonus but that’s not the issue we need to address… and we’re gonna act like we are going to give people a raise but not without an adequacy study.. but we’re gonna give tax cuts?”
“We’re working hard to not face up to raising salaries, when we can. other states have raised their salaries for teachers and used ESSER funding for bonuses.”
Sen. Missy Irvin, a Republican, again argued that teacher pay should be reserved for consideration after completion of the regular “adequacy” study of school funding. She said there’s a “real commitment to engage,” but Elliott and others said this was an empty promise without specifics. Irvin wouldn’t answer Elliott’s direct questions on the point.
The Council took control of $460 million in unspent federal emergency money from the state Education Department. Rep. Reginald Murdock said Hickey’s motion makes members of the Legislative Council school board members. Hendren suggested districts will have to play “mother may I.”
Some districts are using the money for teachers. Some for building improvements. Eduction Secretary Johnny Key had cautioned legislators earlier this week about limits on spending the emergency money.
Today’s action was pre-cooked by leadership. Committee Chair Jeff Wardlaw wouldn’t allow Key to testify and when Democrats asked that he be called after the vote, Wardlaw ignored the request and gaveled the meeting to a close.
Hickey, in introducing the plan, quoted a federal memo that said money could be used to address staff shortages, including additional pay for “recruitment and retention” of a diverse workforce.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield spoke in opposition, characterizing the measure as “in lieu” of putting pay on the special session agenda. Hickey again defaulted to the adequacy study defense.
Chesterfield said the money was reoccurring money and could be used for salaries as well as bonuses. Other states are doing this, she said.
Hickey also objected to those who complain about spending money on an accelerated tax cut without serious study but putting off teacher pay. He said the state budget already allowed for the tax cut, it’s just coming quicker than anticipated because of the surplus.
Hickey’s motion got the required two-thirds approval, with a scattering of nays.
The Legislative Council this morning also delayed for a month considering $6 million in grants to three nonprofit agencies — $5 million for Arkansas National Guard Foundation; $750,00 World Services for the Blind, and $250,000 for the Sultana Disaster Museum — to learn more about a business relationship the three have with Catherine Johnson, wife of Sen. Mark Johnson.
Johnson said he’d recuse from the issues, as he has on other issues, but said his wife was a registered fund-raising “counsel” who advises agencies on fund-raising and development issues. He said she wouldn’t receive money from these government grants because she is paid monthly on a contracted agreement. Rep. Lane Jean said some time was needed to be sure money didn’t go to pay the spouse of a senator. “If it is, I think there’s a problem. If not we don’t have a problem.” Johnson disclosed his relationship on these proposals in a letter today.
Coincidentally, this meeting occurred not long before a Senate hearing on an ethics charge against Johnson: That he signed Alan Clark in for per diem to a meeting Clark didn’t attend.
UPDATE: Wow. Johnson’s wife is making tens of thousands for cozying up to public officials for help.