Legislature may provide more funds for schools

Increase in school funding may range from $8 million to $100 million

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Pressure is mounting on the Legislature to put more money into education as school districts around the state write budgets that call for deep staff cuts next year.

House Finance Co-Chairman John Harris, a Valdez Republican, said he believes lawmakers will give schools more money, but he doesn't know how much more. It could be an increase of anywhere from $8 million to $100 million.

"We're looking very seriously at it right now," Harris said. "We don't know how we're going to pay for it."

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Lyda Green, a Wasilla Republican, said she also expects schools to get help from the Legislature this year, although it might be one-time money to help with rising retirement system costs.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski indicated last week he probably would not veto an increase in education dollars.

"If the Legislature finds that it wants to support additional funding for education programs through the existing process, I would be inclined to certainly support it, relative to the recognition that these are tough times," Murkowski said in response to a reporter's question.

Faced with a deficit in excess of $500 million within the state's fiscal 2005 budget, Murkowski has told lawmakers not to increase state spending.

The state's budget reserve - which it has used for more than a decade to balance a chronic deficits - is down to $1.9 billion. To preserve it for future shortfalls, Murkowski wants to spend no more than $400 million from the reserve, leaving lawmakers with a $100 million hole in next year's spending plan.

Meanwhile, school districts across the state are predicting deep cuts as they develop their budgets for the coming school year.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District plans about $8.5 million in cuts to services, including the elimination of elementary band and orchestra, an elementary reading improvement program and a secondary math improvement program.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is grappling with an $8 million deficit. And the Anchorage School District cut $26 million from its budget for the coming school year, eliminating hundreds of positions.

Those and other districts share several problems: A sudden spike in mandatory payments into state retirement programs, education funding failing to keep up with inflation and new federal testing standards that officials say increase demands on teachers without the money to pay for them.

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