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Democrats, Republicans agree on need for additional school money

Posted: January 31, 2012 - 1:03am

Schools are likely to get more money from the Legislature this year, but that help may not be in the form school advocates say is most needed.

Pro-education senators are pushing for an increase to the base student allocation, or BSA, the per-student amount each district gets.

After years of regular increases, that amount wasn’t increased last year and Gov. Sean Parnell is proposing no increase for next year either.

That’s drawn criticism from a variety of sources, most recently House Democrats at a press conference last Friday that caught the ear of House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, who heads the Republican-led House Majority Caucus.

He predicted Monday that, just like other state agencies, education would get a funding boost this year.

“We’ll see some type of increase to education this year,” he said. “Whether that will be an increase to the BSA or whether it will be in another form remains to be seen.”

Democrats urging more school money say a stopgap funding measure, such as was done last year, is better than nothing, but not the solution the state’s schools need.

“School districts need to make decision about hiring teachers, laying off teachers, deciding what kinds of teachers they need. They need a commitment to approve the funding so they can make those plans,” said Rep. Pete Peterson, D-Anchorage, who has been calling for more attention to the needs of the state’s schools.

Chenault and other Republicans are refusing to accept the House Democrats’ claim they’re not backing schools.

The one-time funding increase last year, previous years’ BSA increases and hundreds of millions in extra funding for under-funded retirement plans were all supported by the House Majority, he said.

Peterson said one-time funding isn’t good enough.

“Here we are after the one-time funding last year, and we’ve got the headlines in your newspaper about 66 educators being laid off,” he said, referring to a recent Empire article about the budget shortfall facing the Juneau School District.

Other districts around the state are now facing the same shortfalls as the Juneau School District first discovered, he said.

The Legislature was not able to decide upon a final education budget number until the final days of last year’s session, and key legislators say that’s likely to happen again this year.

Local districts say they need earlier news about how much money they’ll be getting, as the current uncertainty means they have to send out layoff notices in case the funding doesn’t arrive.

A decision by the Legislature to “forward fund” education each year means while some jobs may in limbo each year, schools have confidence most of their funding has already been approved, Chenault said.

With forward funding, the Legislature sets aside money each year for the next year’s education budget, though recently the precise amount hasn’t been set.

House Rules Committee chair Craig Johnson said forward funding was a big help for districts, though not a complete solution.

“It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be,” he said. “Is it as good as it could be?” Maybe not.”

Peterson wants to make it better, and has introduced House Bill 143 to tie the base student allocation to inflation and a Department of Education & Early Development recommendation on adequate education funding “so that we don’t have to go through this debate every year, year after year.”

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, is a co-sponsor of Peterson’s bill.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who also serves as co-chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, said the schools need to know what their funding will not be just one year out, but several years.

“I think that’s something you are going to see in our bill,” Meyer said. That body’s BSA increase bill, Senate Bill 171, passed out of the Education Committee Monday.

Chenault said the Legislature knew what it was doing when it provided one-time funding the state could afford, rather than increasing the BSA which would commit the state in future years when it might not have as much money.

“We need to be careful to formulas,” he said.

The schools do need more money, he said. At time when state departments all got recommended by the governor for more funding to cover rising costs, not doing the same for schools “is just wrong,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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