School Board optimistic about funding

District costs will be covered if Palin plan, Senate bill passes

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Juneau School Board is optimistic the Alaska Legislature will increase education funding so the district is not forced to cut staff and increase class sizes.

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The board met Tuesday for a budget work session that resulted in consensus to support Gov. Sarah Palin's education funding proposal, as well as Senate Bill 1. The two together would provide an extra $2.2 million for unmet district needs.

If the Senate bill does not pass, Juneau is looking at a nearly $1.8 million budget shortfall that would likely result in the loss of district positions and increased class sizes for fiscal year 2008, officials say.

"It is a hopeful budget," Superintendent Peggy Cowan said.

The School Board will have two readings of the budget and take public testimony at its regular meetings in March before it is adopted. The city's charter requires the district to present its budget to the Juneau Assembly by the end of March for approval.

"If we were funded at the governor's budget then that would cost us a few-million-dollar deficit and would cause a reduction in personnel and teaching staff," Cowan said.

If the governor's proposal passes, the district's budget would be nearly $51.2 million. To maintain the present level of services the district needs nearly $53 million. If the bill passes, the district's budget would increase to nearly $55.3 million, giving it a surplus.

"Eighty-nine percent of our budget is personnel, so there is no way we could make those kind of cuts without reaching staff," Cowan said. "So we would have to decrease programs as opposed to increasing programs."

If the bill passes, the present base student allocation of $5,380 would likely increase to $5,810 per student.

David Means, director of administrative services, said students and teachers would most likely feel the budget shortfall if the bill does not pass.

"As a consequence, that means we will be reducing our class sizes by one student across the district - most likely two," he said.

Means, who presented the budget options to the School Board, said it is tricky to compile the district's budget because the Legislature traditionally delays education funding until the end of the session, after it must be brought before the Assembly.

The board had the option of choosing a third budget scenario, which would have taken into consideration the reduction of costs the district must pay for the costs of teachers' retirement. If the state covers those costs, the district would save nearly $2.9 million and have a $1.2 million budget surplus.

Board member Phyllis Carlson suggested being more conservative and adopting that scenario in case the Legislature does not increase education funding as anticipated. Cowan said reducing Teachers' Retirement System is more of a "novelty" option than a realistic one.

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