Lawmakers criticize education cost study

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Lawmakers from urban and rural Alaska alike have their doubts about a cost study designed to give the Legislature guidance about how it distributes education dollars.

"I think there are too many questions for us to be looking at it as something we can use right now," said Wrangell Republican Rep. Peggy Wilson, who leads the Health and Education and Social Services Committee in the House.

For example, Wilson said, the study found it costs substantially more to educate a child in Craig than in Klawock, communities just seven miles apart on Southeast Alaska's Prince of Wales Island.

If legislators adjust the state's school-funding formula in line with the study conclusions, some districts could gain or lose millions.

Eagle River Republican Sen. Fred Dyson, who chairs the Senate's Health, Education and Social Services Committee, also is skeptical about some parts of the study.

"Certainly some questions have come up that give me significant concerns," he said.

The Legislature paid a Lower 48 consultant $350,000 to produce the report, which has support in the Legislature.

"I think that from a methodological and a theoretical angle it is a good study," said Sen. Gretchen Guess, an Anchorage Democrat. "But it needs some refinement."

Lawmakers from both parties say they value Guess' conclusions because of her professional background in cost analysis. And in this debate she has political neutrality in representing Anchorage - the only district in Alaska where the amount of state funding for schools would not change if the study were adopted whole.

The biggest winner would be the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, which would receive more than $3 million more in state education money each year. Juneau schools would gain an additional $425,000 a year.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District would lose the most, $2.3 million.

"It would have a tremendous impact," said Bill Ferguson, Lower Kuskokwim superintendent.

Other districts are telling lawmakers that the study can help craft a better way to pay for education. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which is about to lay off 60 teachers, believes it is being shortchanged by the current formula.

Following the study's method would give Kenai $1.4 million more.

"We really need some financial relief," said Gary Whiteley, assistant superintendent of the Kenai district.

But Whiteley does not expect the Legislature will use the study this year to rewrite the school funding formula. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which would lose $1.5 million, is lobbying against it, he noted.

The existing funding formula was built around a past study that focused heavily on spending patterns statewide.

The new study, prepared by American Institutes for Research, is designed to be more accurate by looking at the different costs in each region for salaries, energy, travel and supplies.

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