Education funding picture still murky

Latest proposal includes $124M toward education

Democrats, teachers, parents and school officials aren’t happy with what appears to be the future of education funding in Alaska.

Their unhappiness comes as members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee recommended funneling $124.3 million toward education this year — that’s $24.3 million more than was proposed Friday.

“With this legislation, not only will we increase funding for public schools, Alaska’s students will have more career and technical training opportunities, and more charter school opportunities,” Republican Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement praising the committee’s work on the bill.

As the Legislature enters the final day of the 2014 session, the issue is far from settled. The bill still must clear the Senate floor where Democrats are expected to offer changes to the bill.

Once approved by the Senate, the House will have to agree to the upper body’s changes, which is hardly guaranteed.

The plan calls for $100 million in one-time funding in each of the next two years. Senators opted to put money outside of the formula so the state could conduct studies evaluating the funding formula, construction and design and salaries and benefits.

Still, the money is not being proposed via a permanent increase to the Base Student Allocation, a per-pupil funding mechanism, so school districts will have trouble counting on that money in future years, multiple school board members told the Empire Saturday.

“I want it so the community doesn’t have to worry if the money is going to be there, or if they’re going to have jobs,” Juneau School Board member Andi Story said. “This is still going to mean cuts when we do budget predictions in the fall.”

If passed as-is, the bill would send approximately $2.6 million in new funding to the Juneau School District, which recently passed a budget with $4.5 million in cuts, said David Means, the district’s director of administrative services.

In addition to $75 million in new funding to school districts, the bill includes about $24.3 million in funding for a number of other programs such as increasing schools’ broadband internet speeds, a middle school pilot program and giving more assistance to correspondence and charter schools.

Juneau stands to gain less than $100,000 from the broadband component, and the charter school funding should send about $235,000 in new money to the Juneau Community Charter School, Means said.

But the state is not picking up the full tab on the $24.3 million added between Friday and Saturday — municipalities are being told to split that increased cost with the state.

That’s an increased cost to the City and Borough of Juneau of approximately $734,000 as the city faces a $12 million budget shortfall over the next two years.

“A straight tax increase on ordinary citizens doesn’t add a penny to the district,” CBJ Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl said. “But it does make it harder on Juneau taxpayers.”

Kiehl also works as a legislative aide to Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

He added that the city would have to choose between cutting services or raising taxes to come up with the increased costs.

School officials and education advocates have urged lawmakers since early in the session to increase funding via the BSA so the extra funding is guaranteed.

“The BSA increase provides the district’s stability in knowing that they’re going to get a certain amount of money in future years,” said Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau. “Having one-time money, even over three years, does not provide that certainty. After those three years, the budget could go back down to where the BSA is (now).”

Anchorage School Board chair Tam Agosti-Gisler said the funding mechanism in the current version of the bill makes budgeting future years “extremely difficult.”

“It’s hard for current legislators to say what future legislators will do,” she said. “There’s no certainty here.”

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