Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key signed off today on a $1,000 one-time bonus for Little Rock School District teachers. But he provided the news in the letter that indicates some coming pressure on pay levels for veteran teachers.

Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association, commented  on Twitter:

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Thank You, @ArkansasEd Commissioner @JohnnyKey_AR , for signing off on the #LRSDEmployee Bonus. With a stroke of a pen, you made more than 3,500 people feel valued today

Little Rock teachers, represented by the Little Rock Education Association, an affiliate of the AEA. have been without a pay raise during the four years (and running) of state takeover of the school district. They’ve also given back work days and district support of health insurance coverage.

The LREA, working with Superintendent Mike Poore, had worked out the $1,000 bonus, which Poore indicated the budget could sustain, and hoped to get paid before spring break. But Key, who functions as the “school board” in the state takeover, tabled it for further review. Teachers have been meeting on what to do if he refused the bonus, including informational picketing next week.

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The bonus covers some 3,000 teachers and support workers. They’ll get the bonus March 9, 10 days in advance of spring break.

Key had said he wanted updated information on the district’s budget for this year and next year.

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Key notified Poore of his decision in a letter that said there was “no question teachers deserve credit and compensation for their dedicated service to our students.” But he noted district finances were tough because of loss of $40 million in state desegregation aid and then he added an ominous note:

In the long term, however, provfiding bonuses is not the best way to remain compettiive in recruiting and retaining effective talent. I strongly encourage LRSD and LREA leaders to take a hard look at the structure of the district’s pay plan. As you and I have discussed, while Little Rock is among the top districts in the state for average teacher salary (ranked 4th in the 2016 BLR salary report), it is way behind other districts in starting pay (ranked 60th in the 2016 BLR salary report). In addition, during the first three years of teaching in LRSD, a new teacher receives a step increase that is only half of the increase built in after year three. Low starting pay, coupled with low step increases for newer teachers, puts the district at a competitive disadvantage.

We at ADE are eager to work with the district to improve the structure of the pay plan for the long-term benefit of the district. Please keep me apprised of the discussions regarding this topic, and let me know what support we can provide.

Poore works at the please of Key, so I’d guess work on this “improvement” will start soon.

Starting pay has long been a valid issue in the district and the higher pay of long-time employees, popular with them, has not been popular with critics.

But it seems a little disingenuous to complain about the disparity when nobody has had a pay raise in years.

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Also: Enrollment in the district is declining and seems likely to take further hits from state authorization of 1,700 more charter school seats within the boundaries of the school district. Key, a former senator, is a long-time advocate of charter schools, home school and on-line charter schools, along with unlimited attendance choice among school districts. He’s been an ally in the legislature and out of the Walton Family Foundation school agenda, which included one failed legislative effort that could have privatized the entire school district for operation by private charter school operators.

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, thanked Poore for his work and Key for recognizing employees deserved a bonus. “We are excited he signed off on it. Employees will be happy.”But she indicated some concern about Key’s warning. She said teachers had discussed during negotiations a need to raise starting pay.  “We are willing to look at it.” But she said that can’t be done while making no change in the top pay of $64,000. “You have to move it across the board,” she said.She noted that there’d been no general pay raise in four years and teachers have given up from two to five days of pay, depending on the type of contract. They’re also paying more for health insurance. For teachers who’ve worked 20 years, they are making less today than they were four years ago.

Poore issued this release:

“We are excited to honor all of our employees with a $1,000 bonus, which will be received before spring break,” said Superintendent Poore. “We appreciate the thorough review of the proposed bonus by Commissioner Key and thank LRSD Chief Financial Officer Kelsey Bailey, along with negotiating teams from the District and the Little Rock Education Association for their collaborative efforts.”

‘While we know that LRSD faces a budget reduction next year, a bonus like this does not occur without the District having a strong financial foundation,” he added. “We believe this clearly shows we are committed to fiscal responsibility, being good stewards of the resources entrusted to us, and honoring our employees. They have been steadfast in their work, helping us through tough budget decisions while leading us with positive strides in student achievement.”

LRSD values its employees and appreciates their dedication to the students it serves.

Important PS:  Key approved the request after reviewing Poore plans for $5 million in budget cuts next year. An outline of plans detailed in Saturday Democrat-Gazette appears to mean the loss of perhaps 100 jobs from security guards to assistant principals.