LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The Arkansas Department of Education miscalculated how much funding some school districts should receive and is asking those districts to return a total of nearly $2.6 million, Education Commission Tom Kimbrell said.
The agency detected the overpayments for the first time this year, Kimbrell told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
"Very simply it’s something we didn’t see previously, and it’s a mistake on our part," he said.
Kimbrell sought an attorney general’s opinion, which is nonbinding, about what to do. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel advised on Oct. 18 that the money belonged to the state for distribution to other Arkansas public schools.
Kimbrell sent each district a letter Thursday asking them to pay the money by June 15. He met with superintendents from each district in his office the next day.
"It’s not something we’re extremely happy about, obviously," Fountain Lake Superintendent Darin Beckwith said. "We’re going to fight for what we think is ours and for what is in the best interest of the school district."
Beckwith said it’s too early to say whether the district would seek legal action.
Eureka Springs Superintendent Wayne Carr said the Education Department and the attorney general are probably right on their legal interpretation that the money belongs to the state.
"What I am asking for is a little more time," Carr said.
The state is seeking nearly $1.39 million from Fountain Lake; $824,916 from Eureka Springs; $232,734 from Armorel and $112,284 from West Side.
According to a voter-approved amendment to the Arkansas Constitution, 25 mills is the minimum rate of property tax for maintenance and operation of schools in each district. Each district may have a millage higher than 25, if voters there approve it.
The state provides other public school funding from state sales taxes and income taxes.
According to the funding formula approved by the Legislature in 2004, the state must provide per-student, or foundation, funding to each district to pay for an adequate education as required by the state Supreme Court. Currently, that amount is $6,023 per student.
To reach the foundation funding amount, most of Arkansas’ 239 districts get money from the state on top of the money raised from the 25 mills of property tax. In the cases of Fountain Lake, Eureka Springs, Armorel and West Side, their 25-mills tax raises more money than the per-student amount.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said Beebe agrees with the attorney general’s opinion about the school districts and supports Kimbrell’s attempts to collect the money.
"The governor has asked the department to work with the districts to try to recoup the money in a way least detrimental to the districts," DeCample said.
DeCample said the governor asked Kimbrell on Friday to determine whether the districts could legally pay the state after the fiscal year ends, which is June 30, 2011.
Carr and Beckwith said they knew their districts had collected more than required for the per-student funding, but Beckwith said he never thought the state would seek the money because it hadn’t previously.
"I thought it was a possibility the state might ask for the money," Carr said. "But we thought they would give us more time."