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Sides staked out as education funding fight resumes

House advocates one-time funding, while Senate hopes for ongoing money

Posted: March 26, 2012 - 12:02am

Differing views of education funding are setting up a late-session legislative battle between the House of Representatives and the Senate beginning this week.

The House Finance Committee, led by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, is expected this week to begin addressing the controversial issue of how much money to provide for education.

The Senate has already adopted its preferred option, increasing the per-student payments to local districts known as the base student allocation.

The House of Representatives, however, refused to increase the funding formula, but said it was open to a one-time funding bump. Thomas’ committee this week will instead look at numerous bills aimed improving education, some of which may provide more money for pupil transportation and energy costs, as well as making other education changes.

“It’s the chairman’s intent to take up all those bills and try to craft a piece of legislation that helps the education system,” said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

That’s unlikely to mean an increase in the school funding formula, because that would be hard to cut later, he said.

But an increase to the funding formula’s base student allocation is exactly what schools, and their allies in the Legislature want to see.

“What I think they should do is take a good hard look at what’s happened with inflation and fix that, and they should do that in the base,” said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who also serves as House Minority Leader.

Both the Senate’s $30 million BSA increase and a similar $30 million one-time appropriation Gov. Sean Parnell said in a press release he would support fall short of inflation, Kerttula said.

And because last year the BSA was not increased but the Legislature instead passed a $20 million, one-time appropriation targeted at energy costs, this year’s increase would actually only be $10 million.

Even that may be hard to win approval for. A House Finance Education subcommittee cut the proposed budget even further, though the full Finance Committee restored slashed pre-kindergarten funding.

And Thomas told school board representatives they wouldn’t be facing the funding shortfalls they are facing if they hadn’t provided pay increases in contracts for teachers and other employees.

The Legislature faces numerous hurdles in winning more funding said Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, chairman of the House Education Committee.

“Education is being scrutinized almost to the point of hostility,” he said.

Dick said the Education Committee was looking for ways to improve education, including both making students responsible for their education and more local accountability, but that adequate funding remained important while that was happening.

“We desperately need to reform our education system, but we shouldn’t choke the patient while we’re doing the operation,” he said.

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

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