Governor: No teacher salaries in session, but doesn’t close door on bonuses

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,783 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he will not include increasing teacher salaries in the upcoming legislative session called to expedite previously approved income tax cuts, but he left open the possibility of providing one-time bonuses.

Speaking to the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Summer Conference July 25, the governor said there was insufficient support in the Legislature for increasing minimum teacher salaries in the session that begins Aug. 9.

Legislators instead prefer to wait until their adequacy study is completed this fall. The House and Senate Education Committees complete the study every other year to determine a funding matrix for Arkansas schools. The full Legislature approves the matrix in the regular session, which starts in January.

“That is their prerogative. I understand it and accept it,” the governor said.

Hutchinson afterward told reporters that he did not intend to include a teacher salary increase on the session’s agenda. However, he indicated legislatively approved bonuses are still a possibility.

“I want to keep a lot of options open, and I think first of all the teacher salary issue is, we’re going to wait, and we’re going to address that in the session next year when I’m outta here,” he said.

“And then the other issue, which is more immediate, is the bonuses, and again I applaud them for raising that issue, and so we’ve got to work together to figure out whether we can accomplish the goals of supporting our teachers and our staff with these bonuses, but at the same time have the flexibility for these other needs.”

The governor in his speech criticized a legislative plan to recommend that schools provide $5,000 bonuses for teachers and $2,500 for classified staff. The increases would be funded using $500 million from the federal American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund.

Members of the Arkansas Legislative Council voted July 21 to make the recommendation after previously appropriating the money June 17 for broader applications by local school districts. School districts’ plans for spending the money must be approved by the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee.

The governor said school districts had already started setting their plans in motion based on their unique situations and the guidance they had received from the federal government and the Department of Education.

He said one district had said compliance with the legislators’ new recommendation would require it to get rid of its career coach and would affect its learning loss prevention program. Another said it was providing bonuses, but they were tied to teacher attendance and performance benchmarks, which the governor said was a good thing. A third district had planned to spend the money on roofing, windows and staff hiring. A fourth district would be $1.9 million shy of the recommended amounts. A fifth would need an additional $4.1 million from other sources to comply.

The governor said he agrees with lawmakers about the need to increase salaries and to provide immediate relief to educators through a bonus.

“But this plan is a curveball that is not in the strike zone,” he said. “It disrupts your local spending priorities, creates delays and more reviews by the Legislature, and takes discretionary federal money away from your local decision making.”

Gov. Hutchinson announced he was calling a special session July 5 after the Department of Finance and Administration said the state had a $1.628 billion surplus for fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30. The primary reason for the special session is to accelerate previously planned tax cuts.

The governor had first proposed raising teacher salaries to a minimum of $46,000 while implementing at least a $4,000 salary increase. He later scaled that proposal back to $42,000 with a $4,000 increase for the 2022-23 school year. The minimum salary going into this school year is $36,000, which is the amount paid at 145 school districts. Mississippi recently increased its minimum teacher salary to $41,500.

The governor said in his speech that the teacher salary increase would have required one-time funds for the upcoming school year but then could be paid for using recurring funds.

“Because of our current $1.6 billion surplus, we are in a unique time in history to help our teachers again. Other states realize this, and that is why they are upping the game,” he said.

The governor also told administrators that he will ask lawmakers for a $50 million grant program for school safety initiatives. He said 50 of the nation’s 55 governors including its territories had signed a compact to invest more in computer science education. He said the number of public school students taking computer science courses has increased from 1,100 when he took office to almost 13,000, and it’s now a requirement for graduation.

The governor recently ended his tenure as chairman of the National Governors Association.