West Side School District officials recently gave an annual update on finances, facilities, and academics.

 West Side School District officials recently gave an annual update on finances, facilities, and academics, demonstrating efforts to carry out the district’s mission of making students “successful, responsible, and productive citizens with high ethical standards.” They also pledged to continue engaging parents and community members in decision-making.

Superintendent Andy Chisum presented an overview of facilities, telling patrons of a new roof on the trades and industry building, one of the six instructional buildings on the 78-acre campus, which is divided by Highway 92. He also fielded questions about school operations and finances.

Primary among the improvement plan for 2013-14 are improving literacy and mathematics achievement and improving wellness of staff and students. Those are the three main areas addressed in the Arkansas Comprehensive School Improvement Plan submitted to the state.

Based on the improvement process carried out by the elementary school, high school, and the district, federal funds will be targeted to those areas. The district will receive about $357,800 from federal sources.

Chisum noted that the district has a rising property assessment, which means it receives increasing revenue from the county, and lowering student count, which results in decreasing state and federal funds.

To some people, that makes it appear that West Side is a “rich” district, Chisum said, a point that he refuted. Looking at the 2012-13 expenditures per student, $8,339, West Side appears poorer than state average, which is $9,379 per student.

Part of that difference is attributable to funding based on the district’s number of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunches. At 58.2 percent, the district’s percentage of students who qualify is slightly less than the state average of 60.5 percent.

The district has a 33.6 mill tax levy, including the 4.9-mill increase approved by voters in 2012. Of the total, 3.66 mills are dedicated to debt service.

The elementary and high school were cited in 2012-13 for having teachers teaching out of their licensed area, although the schools received an Alternative Licensing Plan waiver from the Arkansas Department of Education.

Elementary Principal John Long pointed to several sources the school uses to improve instruction and alter curriculum, including state and national test results, formative assessments, the Accelerated Reader program, and the Qualls Early Learning Inventory for kindergartners.

During the annual improvement process, the school develops interventions and aligns those with goals of improving academic achievement and performance. This year’s interventions address literacy and math improvement, along with increased parent engagement.

Likewise in the high school, under returning Principal Gary Nipper, math and literacy improvement are primary objectives, with specific interventions determined by a variety of data such as standardized tests and formative assessments.

Both schools use a variety of instructional supplements, some of which are technology-driven, to help students succeed academically.

The two principals presented 2012-13 test data and gave highlights of academic programs of their respective schools.

Johnny Ramsey, technology coordinator, gave an overview of recent upgrades to the schools computer network, including efforts by the district to obtain federal funding for increasing bandwidth. In the spring, the school board funded a plan to increase bandwidth from 3 to 12 MB; to improve the wireless infrastructure; and to provide laptop computers to each student in grades 5 through 8. As part of that plan, the school applied for e-rate funding to improve broadband service to 45 MB.

Ramsey said the district has been providing additional information as the application is reviewed and that the application has moved through a couple of the required stages, which is a good sign. He hopes to find out by year’s end if funding will be granted.

Matt Irwin, federal programs coordinator, outlined the use of federal funds, which are directed by the comprehensive school improvement plan. He pointed out that because of declining enrollment and a shifting of impoverished students in the state, the district will receive $41,000 less in federal funds, a total of $357,800, compared to last year’s total of $399,000.

The annual meeting took place October 17, and it was timely as Governor Beebe summoned lawmakers that day to Little Rock for a special legislative session to address public school employee health-insurance premiums, which were to increase mightily on January 1.

Unrelated to health insurance, one of the bills in the session would have diverted money from eight school districts in the state, including West Side, Quitman, Nemo Vista and South Side (Van Buren County), to state coffers. There are 238 districts in the state.

Under the proposal, local tax collection on 25 mills that exceeded the $6,393 per student guaranteed by the state, which is established as equitable for this school year as the Uniform Rate of Taxation, must be sent to the state’s school facilities fund. West Side, which collects more than $8,000 per student, would stand to lose nearly 20 percent — $1 million — of its $5.2 million local budget this year.

Chisum, who testified before the House Education Committee during the session, said the proposal is unfair because it doesn’t consider other sources of revenue; it would have a profoundly negative effect on districts with excess URT funds; and it is local taxapayers’ dollars, not a state tax.

Although the state Senate approved the legislation diverting excess URT funds, the companion bill in the House never emerged from the Education Committee. The General Assembly did, however, find funding to dramatically decrease health insurance premiums for public school employees.