Study says schools need more money for teachers

School District to benefit from recommendations

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Juneau School District would receive more money if the Alaska Legislature adopts the recommendations of a new study that looked at geographical differences in energy costs and salaries.

"Finally, somebody is waking up to this," said Patti Carlson, human resources director for the Juneau schools.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, said Wednesday it's too early to say what lawmakers will do. They are drafting bills to put the study on the table. A work session is set for 8 a.m. Friday.

The Legislature rejected earlier studies of what's called the area cost differential because there were winners and losers among the state's 53 school districts. Without a big influx of money, there still would be.

"We may see criticism to the point that people say, 'nice try again, but you've missed the mark once again,' " Therriault told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

The area cost differential is one piece of the formula for determining the state funding and the minimum local funding for schools, called basic need. The differentials haven't been changed since they were set in 1998.

Juneau would gain $1.25 million at the current level of basic funding under the proposal by the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The $38,000 study was made public by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which commissioned it. Therriault is its chairman.

With no increase in funding, there would be some big losers because money would be shifted from some districts to others. Anchorage would give up $24.3 million; Fairbanks, $5.4 million; and Matanuska-Susitna, $3 million. Those districts are represented by nearly two-thirds of legislators.

It would cost $82.5 million in new funds if no districts were to lose any money under the proposal, the state Department of Education said.

Under that scenario, Juneau schools would gain nearly $4.4 million.

The study looked mainly at energy costs and the salaries of teachers and administrators. Those salaries are the major expense of any school district.

The study asked: What salary increase would be needed in each district to draw a pool of applicants for a teacher or administrator job similar to the pool in Anchorage. The larger the applicant pool, the more likely a district will hire a good teacher, the study assumed.

Bill Bjork, president of the NEA-Alaska, a large school employee union, agreed with the study's premise.

"It's certainly something we can support so that school districts around Alaska can be competitive in the same hiring pool," he said. "The No. 1 issue for student achievement is having a highly qualified teacher in front of the class."

Carlson said the Juneau School District used to attract a line of teacher applicants from one end of a hotel ballroom to the other at job fairs in Anchorage. That doesn't happen anymore, she said.

"Attracting teachers to Alaska in general has become more difficult than it was in the good old days when the money was more plentiful," Carlson said. "And Juneau is certainly part of that."

Housing is expensive in Juneau, she said.

An earlier study suggested that the cost of a teacher is about equal between rural and urban school districts. Although rural districts generally pay more for beginning teachers than do urban districts, they keep teachers for fewer years.

The new study looks to an ideal, Therriault said.

He characterized the study's premise this way: "If you really want to have equivalency, you've got to offer enough money in the smaller districts so that you have the same number of people lining up for jobs as in the larger districts."

Therriault said that's an unattainable goal because salary isn't the only reason a person applies for a teaching job in a particular district. Applicants also think about the location's quality of life, the school's size, proximity to relatives, and so on, he said.

It's also an expensive goal, Therriault said. And there's no guarantee that the additional money would go to teachers, he said.

The study will receive "quite a bit of scrutiny" in committees, he said.

Bjork said the addition of $82 million, plus money to cover mandated payments into employee retirement funds, and some more money to cover inflation would bring the basic funding close to adequacy.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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