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Roller coaster for ed funding at hearing

Digital learning funds slashed, UAS job funded

Posted: March 12, 2013 - 8:02pm  |  Updated: March 13, 2013 - 12:04am
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Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, left, Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, center, and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, look over amendments to the operating budget during a House Finance Committee meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, left, Rep. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage, center, and Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, look over amendments to the operating budget during a House Finance Committee meeting at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Tuesday afternoon’s House Finance Committee meeting offered mixed news for education funding in Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development saw its operating budget request cut by a House Finance subcommittee, which reduced Gov. Sean Parnell’s funding request for the department by $5.72 million in general funds and left it with $348.2 million in total authorized funding, slightly less than the $350.3 million authorized for the current fiscal year.

The department saw further decrements to the House of Representatives’ operating budget proposal on Tuesday as the House Finance Committee considered budget amendments.

When he unveiled his budget proposal in December, one of the programs Parnell mentioned in a speech to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce was a partnership with the Alaska Association of School Boards on digital learning.

Parnell included $5.9 million in his draft operating budget for digital learning, including $3.9 million for the first year of a planned four-year rollout that aims to provide every public school student and teacher with tablet computers and train staff in how to use them for educational purposes.

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, reduced that $5.9 million request to $2.61 million.

On Tuesday, that request was cut by $1.71 million more, with the “1 to 1 Initiative” technology rollout funding being expressly denied along with $1.1 million in funding for Alaska’s Learning Network, an online consortium of school districts and nonprofit organizations that offers distance education and professional development courses.

Wilson said AKLN is not the only online education resource available to schools. She also noted that the 1 to 1 Initiative is expected to cost the state an increasing amount every year as more schools adopt it.

“At this time, not knowing where our funds were going to be coming later, it seemed like more of an investment than we were willing to do at this time,” said Wilson.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, objected to the amendment brought forward by Wilson and Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, co-chairman of the committee.

“That $1.1 million decrement, I don’t agree to,” Gara said, describing his objection as a rare instance of him agreeing with Parnell, a Republican with whom Gara has clashed in the past. “I could agree to part of the $3.9 million decrement for the ‘1 to 1’ technology program, on the grounds that it has not been well explained to me and some of the other members of the committee … though I’m uncomfortable with deleting the whole amount.”

Wilson and Austerman’s amendment does provide for $761,800 in general funds for the Online with Libraries program, as well as $138,200 for the Live Homework Help service, in the House operating budget proposal.

The amendment succeeded with all three Democrats on the committee — Gara, Fairbanks Rep. Scott Kawasaki and Dillingham Rep. Bryce Edgmon, who caucuses with the Republican-led House majority — voting against it.

Another amendment offered by majority members restored $100,000 to Best Beginnings, a public-private partnership for early education that saw its funding increment of $137,500 in Parnell’s budget denied.

Gara made a motion to restore the full increment, but it failed along caucus lines.

Legislators referred repeatedly throughout the committee hearing to funding shortages.

Finance lawmakers are working this year to constrain budget growth from the previous year, citing federal spending cuts and declining oil revenues.

“This is probably not the last of the tough choices I’m going to have to make,” Edgmon said, explaining his reluctant opposition to Gara’s proposed $37,500 for Best Beginnings.

The overall amendment on Best Beginnings passed without objection.

The University of Alaska budget underwent modest reductions in Parnell’s budget request by a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau. The subcommittee reduced Parnell’s funding request, which had represented a nearly $10.6 million increase in unrestricted general funds over what was authorized last year, by $2.4 million in unrestricted general funds. That budget was bolstered slightly as funding for as two staff positions, including one at the University of Alaska Southeast, won the committee’s approval.

Muñoz offered an amendment to provide $90,000 in general funds and $27,800 in university receipts for UAS to pay for the position of Center for Mine Training director. Mike Bell, current director for the program, is also the Center for Mine Training’s primary instructor.

“I’ve been in the classrooms and seen kids that really had limited opportunities get through the program and go into high-paying jobs at the local mines,” said Muñoz, who contended that without the director position, the program would be effectively gutted. “I just think it’s been a very, very successful program.”

Wilson and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, opposed the amendment.

“I believe in vocational education training … and I know that we need these courses,” said Neuman. “But I think that there’s other options available out there in public-private partnerships and those that are available through credits that give the state a different way to do this.”

Gara and Kawasaki gave the amendment their support, but they expressed reservations over the proposed increment being specific to UAS.

“I wonder if it would have been more appropriate just to leave it under the consolidated mining … initiative and allow the (University of Alaska) Board of Regents to kind of figure out where to best appropriate those funds,” Kawasaki said.

Funding for a nursing faculty position at the University of Alaska’s Bristol Bay campus in an amendment offered by Edgmon won unanimous support from the committee.

A series of amendments offered by Gara and Kawasaki to increase education funding were rejected.

Several other amendments to the budget were adopted, including one offered by Muñoz and Austerman to require the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to post information about cruise ship wastewater discharge areas and mixing zones online.

Kawasaki successfully offered an amendment to Muñoz and Austerman’s amendment removing language that he suggested the DEC could use to dodge the requirement. Muñoz supported that change, which was opposed by Republicans Neuman, Wilson, Stoltze and Rep. Steve Thompson of Fairbanks.

Austerman said the amendments adopted Tuesday would be incorporated into a committee substitute for the budget legislation, which he said he hopes to advance to the House floor by Wednesday afternoon.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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