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If you build it…

…We’ll probably help pay for it, the state says.

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Months and months of study and early-morning meetings and old-fashioned tug-of-war finally birthed last week the beginnings of a plan to fix Arkansas’s ailing school buildings. State Sen. Shane Broadway, the Saline County Democrat, introduced a slate of bills that lay out both a structure for prioritizing and tracking districts’ building needs and a preliminary budget to pay for the most urgent repairs over the next two years. The bills were hammered out by a working group of legislators, state Education Department employees and school superintendents. Broadway rolled out the bills in the full Senate, where there was some discussion but no vote, and their next stop is the Senate Education Committee, which was to meet the day after this article went to press. The facilities funding bill proposes spending $150 million over the next two years, both for new construction and to help districts pay off debt for existing buildings. Local districts would have to match what the state spends, but the level of the match would depend on the district’s relative wealth. Little Rock is one of a handful of districts that wouldn’t get any state money. Although it’s just a small part of the total estimated facilities needs in the state – recently revised down to $1.9 billion – there is still plenty of grousing that it’s too much to spend at once. The proposal hit immediate resistance from some senators, primarily because it would siphon off close to half of the General Improvement Fund, money usually used for legislators’ home-district darlings – fire stations, sidewalks, community centers. About $100 million would come from the General Improvement Fund in the next fiscal year, and $50 million from general revenues the year after that. The facilities working group has estimated that $50 million a year is how much it would take to meet building needs on an ongoing basis. Broadway said last week that the facilities issue made the funding-formula and consolidation issues of last year’s special session look like “a piece of cake.” With the funding formula, he said, legislators had the existing formula to work from, and a history of the state being involved in how districts spent their money. “With facilities, we started from scratch,” he said. “All we had to look at was what a few other states had done.” Unlike other school operations, he said, facilities has until now always been handled completely at the local level – meaning there were 254 different situations to take into account, one for each school district.

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