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Schools, parents seek more money

Even with Murkowski's increases, some school districts will have to make cuts to break even

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2005

Although Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed two years of increases to school funding, lawmakers this session are likely to hear the cry for even more money.

For example, Joy Beaver and Cynthia Katzeek, two Juneau-Douglas High School students, think there should be more tutors in the schools and fewer students in each class. They plan to talk to school district officials and lobby legislators.

"And if I don't get more funding from those steps, then I have to go to Washington," Beaver said.

Of 10 school districts polled by legislative researchers at the request of Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, six said they would have to make cuts to balance their budget even with the administration's proposed increase.

Alaska Kids Count!

The group can be reached at http://www.AlaskaKidsCount.org. It meets next at 7 p.m. Feb. 8 in the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.

Anchorage's deficit would be $10 million; Juneau's, $625,000. Fairbanks would need to close a $1.5 million gap; Ketchikan, $100,000.

Murkowski wants to increase what's called the base student allocation from $4,576 to $4,880 next school year and to $5,190 the year after that.

It's sometimes referred to as the state's per-student funding, but that's not accurate. The base allocation includes local money where cities and boroughs exist. And the number of actual students is adjusted to account for economies of scale in school sizes, an area's cost of living, special education and vocational education, and intensive-need students and correspondence students.

In the Juneau School District, 5,322 actual students would be adjusted upward to a paper figure of 7,626 students next school year. The latter figure is the one used in the funding formula.

For Juneau, Murkowski's plan means about $2.3 million more in state and city money in the base funding. The city also can voluntarily give more money up to a cap, which rises as the base funding increases.

Still, it's not enough to keep up with rising salaries and other costs, particularly in payments to retirement funds, school districts say. And it doesn't pay for everything school districts would like to do, such as reduce class sizes or buy textbooks more frequently.

Alaska Kids Count!, a group of parents who lobby for more school funds, will urge lawmakers to increase the base from $4,576 to $5,120 for next school year, said Coordinator Mary Hakala.

Its steering committee estimated that's what it would take in Juneau to lower class sizes by five students in the early grades and by two students in the middle schools and high school, plus prevent cuts in the local budget.

Statewide, that level would cost $112 million, $50 million more than Murkowski's proposal.

Last year's increase of $82 million staved off teacher layoffs.

This year, Hakala said, "We want to touch the classroom."

About 60 percent of Murkowski's increase would be taken up by payments into retirement funds, Eddy Jeans, school finance director for the state Department of Education, told the House Education Committee last week. The other 40 percent of the increase is intended to cover inflation.

Rep. Gara said he wanted to do more than hold districts harmless from the effects of inflation.

"I would like to actually add some staff, add some tutors, in a way that would make a meaningful difference," he said in Thursday's hearing of three education funding bills.

The bills remain in the committee. Other bills as well have been offered in the House and Senate.

House Bill 18, sponsored by Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, would raise the base from $4,576 to $4,901, which is $21 more than Murkowki's proposal. The Wrangell School District needs an increase of $143 more than Murkowski's proposal just to break even, Wilson noted.

House Bill 1, sponsored by Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, would increase the base from $4,576 to just $4,589. But House Bill 30 makes a separate appropriation to cover districts' retirement payments as state grants.

Democrats submitted Senate Bill 33 to increase the base each year by the amount of inflation in Anchorage.

Senate Democrats expect that other bills will increase the base for next school year to cover higher required payments to retirement funds, said sponsor Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage.

NEA-Alaska, a major union of teachers and school support staff, wants the state to figure out what level of funding is adequate to educate children to meet state and federal standards, said President Bill Bjork.

The union and other plaintiffs are asking a state Superior Court judge to order an adequacy study, and to compel the state to fund for adequacy. The arguments won't be heard in court until April 2006.

JDHS students Beaver and Katzeek said teachers are too busy to give struggling students extra help.

"I know they have some tutoring programs, but it's not enough to keep kids from getting frustrated and dropping out," Beaver said.

Beaver, a junior who hasn't passed all three state exams needed for a high school diploma, said she supports the test but more money is needed to help students.

"I think it's kind of important to see if kids really understand the stuff they learned through high school, but it's also important they learn it really well," Beaver said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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