Alaska's schools seek more money

Students in some classrooms at Juneau-Douglas High School have chairs but are without desks

Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Gov. Frank Murkowski's proposed increases in education funding aren't enough to stave off cuts, school officials from around the state told the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

Superintendents and school board members talked about rising fuel costs in the Bush, principals who cover three schools near Seward, and large class sizes everywhere.

Students in some classrooms at Juneau-Douglas High School have chairs but not desks, said student Cynthia Katzeek.

"Wow," said Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell.

"I think the biggest problem the school has right now is the dropout rate," said JDHS student Audrey Ackerman. "And a major contributing factor is the ratio of students to teachers is too high to provide them with the environment to motivate them to stay in school."

Because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools are under pressure to increase student achievement, said Nick Stayrook, chief information services officer for the school district in Fairbanks. Murkowski has addressed only the minimal level of funding, he said.

The panel did not pass along any of the funding bills it is considering. The committee is scheduled to meet again at 11 a.m. Thursday.

The administration has proposed raising the base student allocation from $4,576 to $4,880 next school year and to $5,190 the year after. Setting two years of funding at once would help school districts plan their budgets, Murkowski has said.

The governor also has asked the Legislature to set the amount of education funding earlier in the legislative session. That way, school districts wouldn't have to send layoff notices to teachers in May only to keep them after state funding is set in June.

Part of Murkowski's proposed funding - about 61 percent - is intended to help districts make increased mandatory payments into employee retirement funds. The rest would cover a year of inflation at nearly 2.5 percent.

Wilson wants to raise the base funding to $4,901. Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, would raise it only to $4,589, but would deal with retirement costs separately.

School district administrators on Tuesday praised Murkowski for supporting early funding and forward funding.

"That truly would be a momentous change in the state, and would stabilize education," said Melody Douglas, chief financial officer for the Kenai Peninsula schools.

But the districts also asked for more money.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District asked for a base student allocation of $5,086 to add 65 employees.

The Kenai Peninsula district cut 70 positions several years ago, partly because of declining enrollments, and now uses regional librarians, principals and counselors, Douglas said.

Under Murkowski's budget, the district would have to dip into its savings or cut costs to balance the budget, she said.

The Anchorage School District recently passed a balanced budget for next school year, assuming Murkowski's level of funding. But it cut 20 teachers and other services, and took $6.5 million from its reserves, officials said.

Fuel costs for Kodiak Island schools went up 76 cents a gallon, Finance Director Dave Jones said. Murkowski's budget leaves the district short by $90,000.

Joe Banghart, superintendent of the off-road Iditarod Area School District, said it faces a $500,000 shortfall next school year, not including a projected jump in fuel costs of 25 percent.

Carol Doyle, superintendent of the Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District, said Murkowski's proposal leaves it $559,000 short.

The district already has dropped the visual arts and vocational programs at its small schools. The 450-student district cut 11 teachers and about 10 support staff in recent years. Grants have kept the district alive, Doyle said.

She asked for base funding of $5,362 just to keep the status quo. Cuts worth $559,000 "in this district would impact every student, and they will not receive anything close to an adequate education," she said.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, the state's second-largest, has balanced next year's budget, with no cuts, based on Murkowski's proposal, Superintendent Robert Doyle said. But he asked for a higher level of funding so that programs could be improved.

The Juneau School District, whose officials didn't get a chance to testify Tuesday, faces about $625,000 in cuts under Murkowski's proposal.

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