Plan may prevent layoffs at schools

Senate GOP proposes $88 million in additional funds for education

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

A plan suddenly emerged from Senate Republicans on Thursday to add nearly $88 million to Alaska's education system and stave off extensive teacher layoffs and other cuts to local schools.

But the bill, which was rushed out of Senate Finance Committee on the same day, had enough strings attached to give pause to minority Democrats hungry for more school funding increases.

"This is a plan so clever, if you pin a tail on it you can call it a weasel," said Senate Minority Whip Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

"I think this bill needs scrutiny with not only a magnifying glass, we need a microscope on this one," Elton said.

Senate Bill 35 would increase K-12 funding for education by $82 million.

It would pay the estimated $35 million in Public Employees Retirement System and Teachers Retirement System hikes and add money to classrooms.

The measure also provides another $5.8 million for the University of Alaska retirement increases.

But the measure is buried in an appropriations bill intended to access the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which requires help from Democrats to meet the three-quarters vote requirement.

Democrats have traditionally reserved that vote as an important end-of-session bargaining tool to win concessions in what is essentially a GOP-crafted state budget.

Republicans control the Senate by a 12-8 margin. If Democrats don't lend help to reach the 15-vote margin, education money would not be included in the budget.

Another bill now before the Senate Finance Committee would also have to be approved by lawmakers that increases the per-pupil spending by $407 and makes the change take effect.

"It's a good offer. It's a fair offer. They should take it," said Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole.

Therriault said the funding increase agreed upon by the Senate majority is similar to the amount being talked about by House Republicans.

"We think it's the type of thing a three-quarters vote should be used for," Therriault said.

The measure takes on added importance since school officials are expected to send out pink-slip notices to teachers March 15 if they don't get additional funding, Therriault said.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, was surprised by the offer and hopes Democrats take the deal.

"I had a lot of concern about whether the Senate was willing to take such a bold step," said Rose, who called it unprecedented.

"I am witnessing probably the most outward show of support for K-12 education that I've witnessed in the last 30 years since I've been involved in school board governance," Rose said.

But the deal has a lot of moving parts and requires a leap of faith that some Democrats said they are hesitant to make.

In casting the vote for Senate Bill 35, they would have to give away bargaining power without a guarantee the school funding formula bill that officially makes the increase would reach the floor.

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