Group fears cuts to school programs

Advocates worry that $90 million increase won't be enough

Posted: Friday, April 14, 2006

With gas and oil dominating the majority of conversations this legislative session, some parents say the Alaska Legislature is bordering on child neglect when it comes to funding education.

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The education advocacy network Alaska Kids Count! fears students across the state will be the ones to suffer if the Legislature doesn't adequately fund education in a year when state coffers are bulging with a $1.4 billion dollar surplus.

Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed a $90 million increase toward funding education for fiscal year 2007, but with rising costs for retirement, insurance and fuel, school districts around the state will be forced to make cuts, said Mary Hakala, coordinator for Alaska Kids Count!.

"What amazes me is that we have a $1.4 billion surplus yet the funding level that is being proposed for public school still will translate in cuts to school programs in every school I know of across the state," she said.

Murkowski's spokeswoman, Becky Hultberg, said the governor understands the challenges Alaska's school districts face, and that is why he proposed the $90 million increase.

"If you look at the increase over the last three years it's been rather significant and the governor is very proud of his record of increasing education funding," she said.

Hultberg said funding for education is now in the hands of the Legislature.

Hakala said she fears the Legislature isn't hearing the message from parents about the importance of funding education. The House Finance Committee held its first education hearing of the session a week ago. The Senate has yet to meet publicly about the issue. Once the Legislature returns from its Easter Break next week, it will have three weeks left in the session to pass education legislation.

Stephanie Allison, the advocacy group's treasurer, said with a budget surplus of Alaska's size, the Legislature should consider a permanent solution to the education debate.

"It just seems to me that every year education is a big issue," she said. "A permanent endowment to fund education is something that would take a lot of pressure off of the Legislature and off of the school districts so it isn't a battle every single year. And that's what it's been, a battle."

Allison said the cost of running a school keeps increasing, yet the programs seem to keep getting cut year after year or remain stagnant.

Andi Story, a Juneau School Board member and Alaska Kids Count! steering committee member, said if the governor's proposal goes through as planned there will be an estimated $2 million shortfall. The School Board was required by law to create a preliminary budget based off that $2 million shortfall, which resulted in numerous cuts.

If more money is not earmarked for education by the Legislature, the Juneau School District will see cuts to a number specialist positions and the pupil-to-teacher-ratio (PTR) increase, meaning dozens of teachers could lose their jobs.

"That's just really surprising that in a year with more revenue that there has to be cuts to children services in the schools," Story said. "It's hard for me to imagine that that's going to have to happen."

Hakala said the PTR is a major issue Alaska Kids Count!. If the Legislature doesn't produce more money for education, Juneau will see the PTR for Kindergarten through second grade rise from 22-to-1 this year to 25-to-1 next year; grades 3 through 5 will jump from 25-to-1 up to 26-to-1; grades 6 through 8 will jump from 30-to-1 up to 31- or 32-to-1; and grades 9 through 12 will increase from 30-to-1 up to 32-to-1.

"Class size is a first logical step to improve learning opportunities for kids," Hakala said. "It's not the only issue. Certainly you need a capable, motivated teacher whether you have a small class size or a large class size."

Hakala said Juneau is already contributing a substantial share of the funding for local education. She said the community provides about 43 percent of the district's budget.

"It's not that the community isn't doing its part, the state needs to increase its investment," Hakala said.

Allison said Alaska Kids Count, already 500 members strong statewide, needs more parents advocating for education because in the big picture it benefits every Alaska resident.

"The children of the state of Alaska are a big asset to the state if they're adequately educated," she said. "If they're not adequately educated than they become a big expense to the state."

Allison said parents and community members who don't want to see substantial cuts to school programs across the state should lobby the legislators for more funding.

"I'm just excited about parent groups being involved," Story said. "It's one thing for school boards to say we need more money, it's another thing for the community to say it."

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