Schools in Arkansas get $6,600 for every student. So when kids leave a public school, the money leaves too. The state chips in temporarily to cover the financial loss, but a pair of lawmakers want to end that.
Driving in to Crossett near the Louisiana border, cars still share the road with logging trucks. A fading sign from an old movie theater stands alone on a street corner. Residents say it used to be popular.
Automation and the decline in manufacturing changed the timber town. Several years ago, the Georgia Pacific paper plant laid off 700 people. The plant still operates, but many former employees have moved away. The zoo and city pool are closed. Businesses have shuttered, and since 1980 the Crossett School District has dropped from 3,313 to 1,718.
Norman Hill is in charge of the district's finances. He says when he moved here in the 1960’s Crossett was a booming timber mecca. And back then, superintendents from other districts looked to the Crossett district.
“They used to drive down to see what was going on, what was taking place, what was the new idea.”
So Crossett closed schools and downsized with careful planning. But Superintendent Gary Williams says things can get dicey when students leave one by one.
“When you have that transition between fewer students and haven’t decreased your staff to meet that need, or can’t, because it’s not at that number yet, it could get into a stressful situation for districts,” says Williams.
There is a lag time between lost population and the window to cut services. Say a class drops from 25 to 16 students. The district loses over $66,000 but still can’t let go of a teacher until more students leave. So the state will cover the cost of the transition.
It’s called declining enrollment funding. But now some lawmakers in Little Rock say those dollars should end.
Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) filed a bill with Rep. Bruce
Cozart (R-Hot Springs) to put a stop to the transition funding.
That could save the state $14 million. English says some districts aren’t the money it for its intended purpose. She says sometimes they’re saving it or spending it on other needs.
“We need to begin to look at, how are we in fact spending that money?”
English says districts don’t have to prove how the declining enrollment money is spent. And districts that do use it to cover the cost of students who leave can find those funds elsewhere in their budgets.
“Probably how they pay for a lot of things is they move the money around.”
But Sen. Joyce Elliott (D- Little Rock) says districts are allowed to use the funds for whatever they need.
She says such funding cuts could send more struggling districts into fiscal distress, which means the state has to take them over.
“There needs to be some kind of bridge to make sure we don’t just leave those kids without an adequate education. And to put this bill in place, and take away those funds, is going to exacerbate an already difficult situation.”
Crossett’s Norman Hill says if districts lose that money, students are going to suffer. Schools will need to consolidate, rural students will have longer bus rides, and teachers will be let go.
“I think if you look at the history of education in Arkansas, you’re going to see a lot of schools close down,” he said.
Senator English says the bill is likely to run this week.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.