House panel calls for boost in school funding

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A legislative committee says the state needs to put about $78 million more into Alaska schools to keep them from having to lay off teachers and cut services next year.

And the panel said the Legislature needs to keep increasing funding by 2 percent a year.

Rep. Dan Ogg, R-Kodiak, said a subcommittee of the House Special Committee on Education came up with that number after hearing educators around the state discuss what they would need just to maintain services at the 2003-2004 school year level.

"I think the testimony from all parts of the state was very persuasive," Ogg said.

The Education Committee is proposing fixing the hole in school district budgets through two bills.

House Bill 471 would increase the current per-student base funding level by $210 - from $4,169 per student to $4,379 per student.

Eddie Jeans, school finance manager for the state Department of Education and Early Development, said he had not analyzed how much that would cost but expected it to be roughly $42 million.

The amount of money schools actually receive per student through the state funding formula is adjusted based on school size, location, the number of students with special needs and other factors.

The committee is proposing a separate bill to give districts another $35.8 million to cover increases in teacher retirement system obligations.

Schools throughout the state have been talking about making drastic cuts in the coming year, including teacher layoffs, to cope with inflation and increased mandatory payments into retirement programs.

Education Committee Chairman Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said he believes the Republican majority caucus will support the increase.

"No matter who you talk to, everybody has been talking to their representative because it's so uniform throughout the state, it's like a virus," Gatto said.

Murkowski's proposed budget for education provides districts with the full amount of money they are entitled to under the state's current school funding formula.

But because enrollment has declined and local property values have gone up, the amount of state dollars required to go to schools under the formula is down $8.4 million next year from this year's $701.8 million.

A House Finance subcommittee this week recommended an $8 million increase in the governor's proposal.

It's too early to tell what number will finally pass the Legislature.

House Finance Co-Chairman John Harris, D-Valdez, has said he expects lawmakers will provide more money for schools, but that could range anywhere from $8 million to $100 million.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, wants to give schools more than the education subcommittee recommended. He proposes bumping the per-student allocation to $4,600 and not funding the retirement system obligation separately.

He also wants to adjust that number every year for inflation, and provide additional increases of 2 percent a year to be used for reducing class sizes or helping schools meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Gara said it's good to help districts avoid laying off teachers this year but some lost teachers last year as well.

"I think we do need to start repairing the damage," Gara said.

Gatto said Gara could attempt to make that amendment at the committee's next meeting Thursday, when the panel is expected to act on House Bill 471.

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