Schools beg senators for more funds

Educators and lobbyists want more money per student than House bill

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2005

Alaska educators and lobbyists are attempting to convince senators to bump up the $4,919 per-student spending proposal passed by the House last week.

Otherwise, they will be handing out pink slips, "and those pink slips are going to be real," said Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Finance committee.

The $4,919 figure "is not adequate and does not meet the needs of our schools," Bill Bjork, president of the Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, told the committee.

More than 30 educators, students and parents testified Wednesday on House Bill 1, which contains the spending proposal adopted by the House last week.

The Senate Finance Committee took their testimony but didn't act on the bill Wednesday. It will take up the bill again next week.

Many of the educators, including Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan, urged the com- mittee to adopt the Democrat-supported proposal of $5,120 per student.

Previously, the Juneau School District has said the $5,120 figure would allow it to reduce class sizes in the elementary schools from an average of 25 students to that of 20 students, and in the secondary schools from 32 students to 30 students.

The $5,120 figure corresponds to a $111 million increase in education funding. The House bill provides a $71 million increase.

The Alaska Department of Education has estimated that $38 million of any increase will go toward school districts' required payments into employee retirement funds.

The House rejected the Democratic spending proposal, posed as an amendment to House Bill 1, on Feb. 28.

Cowan reminded the committee that House Bill 1 would force the Juneau School District to slash $300,000 from its budget next year.

Textbooks are falling apart and teacher retention is getting difficult in Fairbanks, as well, said Anne Wien Elementary Principal Leslie Campbell.

The Legislature needs to come up with a long-range plan for school funding, she said. "That's your responsibility."

Laury Scandling, principal of Juneau's Yaakoosgé Daakahdi Alternative High School, said she would not be able to enroll 31 students who have dropped out of high school and are now on a wait list to enter her school, under the current proposal.

Scandling said she also lacks the funds to hire a science teacher. That will become a dire problem for her students when new federal academic requirements go into effect.

"I cannot fit one more teacher or student into my space," she said. "We (do) not have the funds to pay rent on a larger space."

Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, repeatedly asked educators whether they would support a resolution that all local governments fund up to their maximum for education.

He said only four out of 34 school districts receive the maximum allocation.

But Tim Steele, president of the Anchorage School Board, said he didn't favor making it mandatory to fund to the local maximum, saying it could maximize disparity among the state's school districts.

Rose, with the association of school boards, said that he sees support among Alaskans for increased taxation to support education.

"I'll pay an income tax," Scandling said.

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