District could garner millions from bills

Increased school funding would spare jobs

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

An education-funding package passed by the House on Monday and supported by Gov. Frank Murkowski would provide the Juneau School District with about $3.23 million more next school year.

The district had proposed laying off 26 teachers and making other cuts to fill a projected $2.1 million budget gap for next school year's roughly $40 million operating budget.

"Naturally, what it would mean for the School Board is we now get to look at, rather than cuts, what kind of replacements we can do, which would be wonderful," said Juneau School Board President Mary Becker.

The new funds from the bills the House passed Monday wouldn't be enough to replace all of the services cut this school year, but it would allow the district to balance next year's budget, "and not have to do those dreadful cuts for staff," Becker said.

The Juneau School District had cut about $1.7 million in services to balance this school year's budget, including afternoon kindergarten buses, after-school activity buses, and six teaching positions.

The bill's increase in funding to what the state calls "basic need" also would trigger a higher amount that municipalities can give schools for instruction. That amount, often called the "cap," would rise in Juneau by about $743,000, said Eddy Jeans of the state Department of Education.

The Juneau School District is taking public comment on next school year's budget at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. The School Board is scheduled to pass the budget at its regular meeting next Tuesday.

The House on Monday approved bipartisan legislation to provide $84.5 million more than was in the governor's budget for K-12 education. The bill also provided $15.8 million more than the current year's spending for the University of Alaska.

The measure could provide relief for schools around the state that have been hit hard by rising costs, including additional required contributions to employee retirement systems. Many districts say they'll have to lay off teachers without extra help from the state.

Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, was elated with the deal.

"I'm sure there's people just jumping for joy on this," Wilson said. "It means the pink slips won't go out."

Becker called the bills "a wonderful first step," but said she'd like to see lawmakers guarantee they'll take care of school districts' increased retirement contributions in the future.

In voting for the bill, House Democrats agreed to allow the state to dip into the Constitutional Budget Reserve - a $1.9 billion account that is used in most years to plug the difference between revenues and spending.

It takes a three-quarters vote to take money from the budget reserve, which means the majority Republicans must have support from minority Democrats.

By voting for the measure Monday, House Democrats were giving up the power they normally exercise at the end of the legislative session over the state budget.

"That's why you've seen four or five days of worry," said Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage. The House Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating on the package since last week.

The Legislature is still working on its main operating and capital budget bills. Croft said the deal that was reached reflects trust developed between the two sides in the House.

Rules Committee Chairman Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said the deal reached with the Democrats is coming two months earlier than the usual tough, end-of-session negotiations. It clears the way for the House to focus in the rest of the session on long-term measures to close with the state's chronic fiscal gap.

The deal still must be approved by the Senate and ratified by Murkowski, who has line-item veto power on budget bills.

"When we put our budget together, we didn't recognize or realize how much of a budget crisis the school districts were going to be in," Murkowski spokesman John Manly said Tuesday. "That's obviously become very apparent since then, and he would support that kind of an increase."

But there's disagreement in the Legislature over the bills that would supply the extra dollars to schools, and Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, was not as reassuring.

"This vessel's still far out at sea, with no port in sight," Stevens said. "I wouldn't guarantee anything at this point."

The bill the House approved passed the Senate several weeks ago, although in a dramatically different form. If the Senate does not go along with the changes the House made, a conference committee of House and Senate members will be appointed to work out the differences.

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