House Finance Committee discusses school funding

JUNEAU — The House Finance Committee began a series of hearings Monday to try to determine how the state funds Alaska school districts and how much additional funding, if any, districts should receive this year.

One of the first points of debate was whether or not funding of K-12 schools has kept pace with inflation.

Rep. Les Gara, a committee member, said classrooms have essentially been flat-funded under Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, with increases only going to transportation and statutorily required contributions to pension funds.

“We’ve had very small classroom funding increases,” Gara, D-Anchorage, said after the hearing. “We did some very big things between 2006 and 2008, but that’s what Parnell is taking credit for.”

Parnell took office in July 2009, after Gov. Sarah Palin resigned.

Education Commissioner Mike Hanley told the committee the numbers paint a different picture: “We hear the flat-funding conversations, but we don’t see flat spending.”

Hanley presented committee members with a graph of the Education Department’s general fund that shows annual increases of funding dating to 2004 that outpace inflation. That graph showed general fund spending in 2004 at $832 million — figures given for 2004 have ranged from about $831 million to $842 million — compared with $1.6 billion for this year.

He said that increased funding provided to schools for things like transportation and energy have helped to keep funding in the classroom, not divert it for other needs.

Committee co-chair Bill Thomas said last week that the goal of the hearings is to find out what condition school districts are truly in and to better understand the issues they face. The hearings do not revolve around a specific bill, and the Haines Republican said he is unsure how a proposal will ultimately be advanced.

Education leaders want a multi-year increase of what’s known as the base student allocation to help schools keep pace with inflation. The Senate earlier this session passed a measure that would provide automatic increases over three years. Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, has said that would help address cost-of-living increases.

Gov. Sean Parnell, meanwhile, has proposed $30.3 million in one-time spending to address increased energy and student transportation costs — demonstrated needs. He and some House Republicans also stress accountability for how money is being spent.

Hearings are scheduled to continue Tuesday.

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