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Stimulus Spending: A Bright Spot

Despite the $100 billion unprecedented infusion of federal cash in the stimulus, the budget situation for K-12 in most states and districts remains pretty dismal. One very bright spot? Arkansas, where some superintendents have a difficult, but enviable challenge.

They're trying to figure out how to spend a significant boost in federal funding - millions of dollars in some cases - on a very tight time frame. And because the money is temporary, they can't put it towards anything that can't be sustained once the funds go away. And, of course, it all has to tie back to the goals of raising student achievement.

On top of unprecedented increases for Title I and special education, Arkansas districts got a major boost from the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which was supposed to backfill cuts to K-12 and higher education. But the Natural State didn't have any cuts to restore. In fact, it has increased funding for education, in part because of a school finance lawsuit.

So most of that money went to districts, through the Title I formula. Districts could spend the dollars on any activity authorized one of four major federal laws: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or the main laws governing students in special education, career and technical education, and adult and family literacy. Districts can also use the money to renovate and repair facilities.

So what have Arkansas districts done with all this largess? Well, according to the folks at the state department of education, quite a lot. Much of the state stabilization money went to school facilities, particularly renovation and modernization projects, such as adding on a new science lab or building an addition.

And some districts chose to spend their extra Title I funds on purchasing technology - lots of new smart boards in Arkansas classrooms - and training teachers how to use it. Others developed partnerships with universities and school improvement contractors to help implement the state's new, differentiated accountability plan.

Some districts in the largely rural eastern part of the state used the money for recruitment and retention programs to keep highly qualified teachers. Other districts used their special education funding to send general education teachers back to school to get special education degrees.

In submitting their plans to the state, districts had to explain what education redesign objective they were furthering through each of their plans - even if they were asking for money to refurbish a bathroom.

And any district that submitted a plan that involved hiring new staff had to explain just how they intended to pay for the new personnel after the stimulus dollars went away. Those that couldn't point to a funding stream were rejected.

The 9,000-student Conway school district in the central part of the state got $7 million in extra federal funding from the state stabilization fund, Title I, and special education. Much of $4 million in state stabilization money went to renovations and modernization.

But the superintendent Greg Murry said, he is "most personally proud" of a program that he financed using part of the over $1 million in extra Title I funds the district received. The district started a six-week summer enrichment program for 125 students who were struggling on state assessments. And it will run the operate the program again for the next two summers, serving even more kids.

Murry is hoping that if the program demonstrates good results, the district might find the funds to keep it around after the stimulus money dissipates.

Initially, Murry said he got some questions from staff as to why the district wasn't using $7 million to raise salaries or hire new personnel. He had to explain to teachers and principals that the money was just a one-time, temporary bump, not a lasting funding stream.

"We could have chosen to hire people for a short time," he said. But, "we need to build sustainability, I don't want to insert teachers in the classroom then immediately pull them right back out."

Of course, all this decision making has taken time and manpower and even well-funded Arkansas has run into capacity issues. Nearly everyone has worked long hours. Charlotte Vann, who oversees Conway's federal programs, was emailing questions to the Arkansas Department of Education on the fourth of July.

But it's been worth it, she said.

"We just wanted to be very sure with this kind of opportunity that we weren't just throwing money out there towards something that was not prudent," she said. "You bet we did whatever it took to make sure this was working for our kids."

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