LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Commission has approved more than $42 million in state aid to local school districts for new construction and repairs to keep schools safe, warm and dry.
About $3.2 billion have been spent on 2,453 projects since 2006. The state has provided $1.34 billion of that amount and school districts match the funding, at a rate that depends on their locally generated wealth.
In the 2007 regular session the legislature approved spending $456 million of the state’s surplus on school facilities. That fiscal year the surplus was much larger than usual.
The Arkansas Supreme Court soon released the state from under court jurisdiction in the long-running Lake View school funding case. The court ruled that the state’s public school system was adequate and equitably funded, as mandated by the states’ Constitution.
From 2006 through 2017, the state has spent an average of $86.5 million annually on construction and major renovation projects in public schools.
The major part of facilities funding is through the Partnership Program, which is structured so that relatively poor school districts receive a higher proportion of state aid than a prosperous district. The intent is to level the playing field between districts that can and those that cannot afford new facilities.
Approval of the state facilities program led to an increase on the part of school districts to raise debt service mills, in order to generate local revenue with which to match the available state aid. The number of districts in Arkansas has changed since then, because of mergers, but since 2005 there have been 168 attempts on the part of 235 districts to increase their debt service mills.
On average during school elections since 2005, about 42 percent of proposed increases in debt service mills have failed. Some districts have been successful raising millages only after a second or third try, and 19 districts have failed each time they placed a millage increase on the ballot.
At the beginning of this school year, legislative staff conducted a confidential survey of school principals to determine their perceptions of the physical condition of their buildings. By November, 541 principals had responded.
About half, 51 percent, said that their buildings were in good shape overall, while 25 percent said that their buildings were in excellent shape. Of the remaining principals, 20 percent rated their buildings as fair and three percent said their school buildings were in poor shape.
Those responses were compared with measures of how many low-income students attended each school.
Schools in fair or poor condition had more low-income students, but only slightly more. In the schools that are in poor or fair condition, 65 percent of the students are from low-income families. In the good and excellent schools, 60 percent of students are low-income.
Another survey question asked principals if their buildings are large enough. Almost 70 percent said that their buildings had enough space, or more than enough space for the entire student body. A quarter of the principals said their schools needed to be larger to accommodate all their students, and five percent said they had enough space but it was poorly arranged.
The overwhelming majority of principals, nearly 80 percent, were satisfied with the general suitability of their school facilities.