Educators glad to put stimulus funds to work.
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY is about to close for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences & the Arts, and Janet Hugo is feeling time slipping away on Option A for using $6 million in education stimulus funds.
Hugo, director of the public boarding school in Hot Springs, is racing to revise plans and find additional money to pay for a new residence life complex. She estimates the project cost would easily double the $6 million recently made available through America Recover & Reinvestment Act funds.
"I'd love for someone to write me a big old check and tell me to build those dorms," Hugo said. "Our hope is we're going to be able to get the funds together to build this. It will be a challenge, but we've been working on this for quite some time."
ASMSA's proposed allocation is the largest on a $69.1 million list announced Aug. 10 by Gov. Mike Beebe. (See Page 20.) That figure includes $42.5 million allocated to 35 public and private universities and colleges around the state.
"We're just so appreciative that the governor is so supportive of us," Hugo said. "I'm in a situation where we'll use the money, but it may be Option B."
For now, ASMSA officials and architects are trying to get everything together to build a facility to house 240 students, a cafeteria and staff offices before the end of August. If that scramble proves unsuccessful, efforts will shift to investing the $6 million to renovate the existing residence hall, which was originally St. Joseph's Hospital.
"The kids give up a lot to come here, and they need a better place to live," Hugo said.
In addition to on-campus students, the school serves 4,000 others around the state with a wide range of class offerings.
ASMSA is the only Arkansas institution so far to run the stimulus-funding gauntlet with a new construction proposal. Most, daunted by a 2011 completion deadline, have chosen to upgrade existing facilities.
Spending stimulus money on deferred maintenance items is a popular gambit for higher education administrators and K-12 superintendents alike. Infrastructure at campuses across the state is receiving long-overdue attention.
From the University of Arkansas system down to the smallest institution, schools are using economic recovery money to make a dent in dusty honey-do lists. Money is already flowing from the $341.1 million pool of education stimulus funds earmarked for facilities renovation and construction at the state's 245 school districts.
The funding is part of a $569.9 million windfall from Uncle Sam that encompasses improvements to academic performance and narrowing achievement gaps, $111.1 million; and special education and services to students with disabilities, $117 million.
"We're in the middle of the process of reviewing proposals from the school districts," said Julie Thompson, director of communications for the state Education Department. "There's a lot of exciting things coming in from the school districts. Students across Arkansas will see a big difference in their classroom environment."
The Conway School District's proposal was among the first to gain approval and start putting stimulus money to work.
"It took about a month to get it in final shape to get it approved," said Greg Murry, district superintendent. "We pushed hard to see if we could get as much done as we could this summer.
"The president said he wanted to get this money back into the economy as fast as possible, so we took him at his word."
Modernization and renovation projects on Conway facilities alone total nearly $4.1 million.
The work is spread across 15 schools, ranging from $35,420 to renovate the outdoor learning area with sod and install a keyless access and video surveillance system at Ellen Smith Elementary School to replacing the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, fire alarms and more in an $848,498 roster of upgrades at Carl Stuart Middle School.
Murry can't wait to see the faces of students, parents and faculty when they see the extensive facelifts to the older schools.
"We've had a very busy summer," he said. "We made the decision to make the finish line on the application as fast as we could, so we could get the biggest bang for the buck over the summer.
"We're trying to do some major pick-me-ups to these buildings to give them new life. It's very important for us to maintain our buildings. We're not a corporation that can do major capital improvement projects whenever we want. It's been a good thing for our district and most importantly for our kids."
Heather Gage, special adviser to the state Education Commissioner, said the improvements run the gamut, from the mundane but necessary to the innovative, as school officials were challenged to think outside the box.
Basic improvements often won the day, especially for small cash-strapped school districts. As an example, Gage noted that fixing a leaky roof that had led to mold and allergens that impaired classroom health was a small-ticket item but a big deal for one school.
"That affects student learning," she said. "Such repairs aren't as sexy as high-tech classroom improvements, but what a great use of this one-time money that makes the student environment better. I can't wait to get out in the state and see the activity going on."
By George Waldon
Recent Education Stimulus Funding Ark. School for Math, Sciences & Arts, Hot Springs $6 million * Arkansas Wireless Information Network, Little Rock $4.1 million Arkansas Dept. of Correction, Pine Bluff $4 million Arkansas State University, Jonesboro $4 million University of Arkansas, Fayetteville $4 million University of Arkansas, Little Rock $4 million Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, Little Rock $3.64 million Arkansas School for the Blind, Little Rock $3.5 million Arkansas School for the Deaf, Little Rock $3.5 million University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff $3 million University of Central Arkansas, Conway $3 million Arkansas Tech University, Russellville $2.96 million Henderson State University, Arkadelphia $2.9 million University of Arkansas, Monticello $2.514 million Southern Arkansas University, Magnolia $2.5 million University of Arkansas, Fort Smith $2 million Ark. Delta Training & Ed. Consortium West Memphis $1.875 million UA Division of Agriculture, Little Rock $1.4 million NW Arkansas Community College, Bentonville $750,000 South Arkansas University Tech, Camden $740,251 Rich Mountain Community College, Mena $645,000 UA Community College, Batesville $505,000 Arkansas State University, Beebe $500,000 Arkansas State University, Mountain Home $500,000 Cossatot Community College, De Queen $500,000 Philander Smith College, Little Rock $500,000 Pulaski Technical College, North Little Rock $500,000 UA Community College, Hope $500,000 Black River Technical College, Pocahontas $469,100 Ouachita Technical College, Malvern $382,691 Ozarka College, Melbourne $375,000 South Arkansas Community College, El Dorado $337,435 Southeast Arkansas College, Pine Bluff $337,435 Arkansas Northeastern College, Blytheville $270,750 UA Clinton School of Public Service, Little Rock $270,750 Mid-South Community College, West Memphis $270,000 Lyon College, Batesville $265,000 University of the Ozarks, Clarksville $253,249 Arkansas State University, Newport $250,000 East Arkansas Community College, Forrest City $250,000 Phillips Community College, Helena $250,000 National Park Community College, Hot Springs $235,170 North Arkansas College, Harrison $200,000 UA Community College, Morrilton $200,000 Total $69.1 Million * Subject to plan approval. Source: Gov Mike Beebe's office.