Lawmakers launch debate on money for education

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2007

As state lawmakers begin debate over funding K-12 education, they are not asking whether funding should be raised for Alaska schools. They are asking how high.

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Although Gov. Sarah Palin has proposed flat-funding Alaska schools this year and the House has a proposal to bump the current per-pupil spending by $1, no one expects either will come to pass.

The end result may look instead like a Senate proposal that would increase the base student allocation by 8 percent - $430 per student - or it could include a House proposal that would relieve school districts of the heavy burden of paying for soaring retirement contribution rates.

"So it's really no different than any other year. You've got all these different numbers out there and we all want to do what we can for education," said House Finance Committee co-chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

As the committee opened public testimony Tuesday, education officials from around the state lined up in what promises to be a wide-ranging debate over how best to increase funding, take care of rising retirement contributions, balance differing costs between urban and rural districts, pay for busing, special-needs students and new programs.

Many officials asked lawmakers to raise the current $5,380 base student allocation and have the state pick up the tab for the retirement costs.

Jamie Stacks, superintendent of the Pribilof School District, said declining enrollment has led to a funding crunch in the district despite increases in education spending in recent years.

She estimates that a $600 per pupil increase, a more favorable calculation of the geographic cost differential and stripping retirement costs from the school funding formula would allow schools in her district to break even next year.

"We would not be adding any new staff or any new programs. We would just be maintaining the status quo," said Stacks.

Joe Banghart, superintendent of the Iditarod Area School District, asked for a similar increase, adding that the soaring cost of fuel and utilities is contributing to a maintenance budget that now adds up to 27 percent of the district's overall budget.

Banghart also said his district has trouble recruiting and retaining teachers because their compensation has not kept pace with other areas around the country.

Bill Bjork, executive director of the National Education Association-Alaska, said the state has a long way to go to dig out from past years of underfunding education.

He said an NEA study shows education funding in Alaska is $600 million shy of where it would be had school dollars kept up with inflation. He is proposing a seven year plan to bring funding back up.

"It is the issue that determines if our kids get an opportunity to learn. If you're in fourth grade, you've only got one shot, hopefully, at fourth grade," Bjork said.

Some school officials suggested lawmakers heed the governor's call to pass an education funding bill early.

That would prevent districts from having to hand teachers pink slips in preparation for a potential money shortage - as they do every year. March 15 is the date school districts give some teachers pink slips if they are unsure whether enough funding will be available to pay them.

Meyer said lawmakers, dealing with complex and contentious questions on just the mechanics of school funding, were unlikely to meet the governor's deadline. Many lawmakers also are unwilling to commit to budget proposals before they've seen the spring revenue forecast.

Sen. President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said she also is not planning to push for early funding.

"You can surely see the school district's side to wanting to have surety. But some have also said they would rather have more funding at a later date than early funding and having it possibly not be as much," Green said.

Lawmakers also have said they want to rebuild the public education fund that was created last year by putting surplus money aside to pay for education in the future years.

The governor zeroed out the fund in her budget. She is proposing instead to put $1.3 billion into the body of the Alaska Permanent Fund while placing another $1.8 billion into a state savings account.

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