JUNEAU — The Senate Finance Committee heard overwhelming support Wednesday for a proposed increase in education funding.
Dozens of educators, school administrators and other supporters of SB171, which cleared the Senate Education Committee last week, phoned in testimony and packed the committee room waiting for a turn to speak in favor of the bill.
Many in attendance praised the bill because they said it would help stave off budget shortfalls and provide districts some long-term planning ability.
“There’s not fat there,” Max Mertz, an accountant with two daughters in Juneau schools, told the committee. “The school districts aren’t sitting on places that can easily be cut. It’s meat that we’re cutting at this point.”
The bill would bump the current base student allocation of $5,680 by $125 next fiscal year then would continue with increases until the allowance reaches $6,070 in 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Kevin Meyer, who wrote SB171 with the help of Democratic Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, said in an interview before the hearing that the case for a multi-year increase to the base student allocation is overwhelming.
“Every year, superintendents and principals ask for more money,” Meyer, R-Anchorage, said. “You expect that. But when parents start calling with a lot of concerns about classroom sizes and programs, when your constituents speak up, you really listen.”
Meyer said he expects the Finance Committee to clear the bill for a floor vote, possibly as soon as early next week. Beyond there, he said the path for the bill is difficult to predict because of other proposals in the House and apprehension from Gov. Sean Parnell about increasing the base student allocation.
Parnell has said he is open to increasing education funding, but he has voiced hesitation to raising the allocation. He has said the state needs to retain flexibility if the economy changes in a way that is worse for Alaskans.
“If for some reason oil prices drop (below $96 per barrel) we start to pull from those saving accounts very quickly,” Parnell said in a recent press conference. “Last year we took the approach that, because fuel prices were high, we gave one-time increases. I’m open to the conversation when it comes to those fixed costs.”
Meyer said conversation is welcome but that new ideas need to be presented now, as debate over changing the state’s tax on oil companies looms heavy in the mind of lawmakers.
“I don’t think anyone has determined what is a good alternative to the (allocation),” Meyer said.
Others in attendance said the bill was a good start but said the state should go further and at least match increases with the inflation rate.
John Alcantra of National Education Association-Alaska said a long-term increase to match inflation was voted as his organization’s top priority.
“We don’t want to be here this time next year,” Alcantra told the committee. “This bill, while appreciated, doesn’t do the job.”
The Finance Committee plans to continue discussion of the bill when more detailed reports on its economic impact are presented by the state.