Not done yet

JUNEAU — House and Senate negotiators on Tuesday worked toward resolution on an education bill that’s been prolonging the legislative session, but a key lawmaker said the process won’t be rushed.

“It will come together really as quickly as we can find consensus in the building over either today, tomorrow or throughout the coming week,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who is chairman of the bill’s conference committee.

The six-member committee, made up of three representatives and three senators, met Tuesday to start hammering out differences on House Bill 278.

Hawker promised an open process that would allow the public and other lawmakers to follow the committee’s process in drafting a compromise bill.

Education — specifically, education funding — became a point of contention between the House and Senate in the waning days of the legislative session, and a lack of consensus sent the session past its scheduled end of Sunday. State law calls for a 90-day session, but the Alaska Constitution allows lawmakers to meet for up to 121 days.

Hawker said funding was “the greatest sticking point, I think, in the entire piece of legislation.”

Gov. Sean Parnell, in the original version of HB 278, proposed an increase in the per-student funding formula, also known as the base student allocation, of about $200 over three years, a level he called a starting point for discussions. The House bumped it up to about $300 over three years and proposed an additional $30 million in one-time funding to be distributed to districts. The Senate has proposed $100 million over three years outside the funding formula, which some lawmakers say is broken and in need of review.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the additional aid over three years would allow time for a study on how the state funds schools. The Senate version of the bill included such a study.

Many public school advocates favor putting any additional aid into the formula as a way to provide predictable funding that districts can budget. Minority Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have endorsed an increase in the allocation of about $650 over three years to help districts stave off cuts.

“There’s a simple fix to this stalemate,” Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said in a statement Monday. “Do what schools, teachers, parents, students, and business leaders agree is what our public schools need — increase the BSA $400 next year and $125 the following two years, then let everyone go home.”

The conference committee flagged other issues for further discussion, including teacher tenure, school bond debt reimbursement and the impact of raising the required local contribution level for schools.

The House version of the education bill changed the time it takes for teachers in larger communities to reach tenure from three years to five years. That proposal mirrors a House-approved measure that stalled in the Senate last year.

It would stay at three years for teachers in districts that are in small boroughs or cities with fewer than 5,500 people. The Senate version of HB 278 didn’t address tenure.

Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chair of the House Education Committee, said that could be a sore spot.

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