Legislators' presentation is not encouraging to educators
EUREKA SPRINGS -- Members of the Arkansas Rural Education Association (AREA) were not encouraged by what state legislators had to say about the coming 2005 General Assembly and how proposals might affect school funding.
In two sessions Tuesday morning during the annual summer conference, State Representatives Phil Jackson of Berryville, LeRoy Dangeau of Wynne, Mike Hathorn of Huntsville, and state Senators Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett, Gene Jeffress of LouAnn and Jim Holt of Springdale talked about what may or may not happen next spring.
None of them seemed to have a good idea of whether or not Governor Mike Huckabee was going to push for more consolidation of small schools or wait for the report on the schools' facilities study before deciding on a course of action.
"I don't believe he will be coming in the front door for more consolidation," Dangeau said. "He may find another way to bring it forward."
The facilities study is mandated as a result of the Lake View School decision by the Supreme Court.
Every school building in the state will now be inspected for its cleanliness, good repair and operable condition.
"We don't need to say the Taj Mahal is the building standard for these schools," Dangeau said. "What we need is to make sure the roof doesn't leak, the buildings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer and the bathrooms are clean.
"We need to hammer hard on maintenance of facilities. Funds have always been short and some schools have put off maintenance in favor of other programs. Once you get behind in maintenance, it is hard to catch up."
Jackson spoke to raising funds to pay for the state's programs.
"Our tax burden is unfair in some areas," he said. "We have some of the highest sales tax rates in the country, but the lowest property taxes. We need to find ways to make things more level.
"Sales tax is a key. When our border states have sales tax lower than cities in Arkansas, then our residents will go out of state to make purchases, and I don't blame them. That is costing Arkansas sales tax revenue.
"We are going to have to look at higher education costs, prisons and the Department of Human Services prescription drug program.
"We need to find some dedicated funding for the school facilities. We have to look at technology and how we can afford it and use it."
Hathorn focused on keeping small schools open. He said he worked within the legislature to include "may choose to close" instead of "shall close" in the bills on consolidation.
"I have nine rural schools in my district and the difference in 'may' and 'shall' is critical to them," he said. "My issue is not having children riding long distances on the school bus every day.
"The facilities' study will have a big number attached to it, I am sure. For the schools with less than 350 students, it may be tough."
Asked about more consolidation, Hathorn answered, "There are going to be 38 of 100 new representatives in the House next year. I can't imagine that the legislature is wanting to go down that road again."
Concerns over the cost of the recommendations from the facilities study and economic development were the hot topics during the senators' panel discussion.
"The biggest issue will be the facilities study and how are we going to pay for it," said Jimmy Jeffress. "I can't find anyone who wants more taxes. We will have budget hearings in October and we should know by then what the facilities study will propose.
"The governor has asked everyone (department) to flat line their budget proposals, but the Department of Corrections has already asked for more money to raise staff salaries."
Jeffress said the sales tax rate in Crossett is 10.5 percent. Residents of the area cross into Mississippi and Louisiana to shop.
His brother Gene said, "We have killed economic development in Arkansas because of our high taxes. We have saturated the state.
"The facilities study is scary. I don't know where new taxes will come from to finance everything."
In referring to the Lake View decision and the mandate for equality in education and facilities, Holt said flatly, "Equality is an impossibility. I have yet to see the state dabble in anything and improve it.
"I believe in local control. If the state wants control, let the state fund it," he said. "Accountability increases paperwork and classroom teachers have more paperwork than time to teach."
Dave Floyd of the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) School Plant Services, spoke after the legislators.
He said local school districts would have the opportunity to challenge the findings in the feasibility study, although the "state has spent $10 million for the assessments to be made and recorded by professionals, so we'll go by what they say."
Floyd said local districts would have the opportunity to decide what it would cost to bring a building to the state standard, if the work would be worth it or would it be better to raze the building and build a new one.
"The Task Force will be making a priority list of what needs to be done to the buildings. The local districts will have some options about what to do."
Floyd guesstimated the final report would be ready for the Joint Committee in late October and finalized by the end of November.
"We had wanted the report by September, but it didn't get funded when we wanted, so we were late in getting started," he said.