Union: Teacher layoffs loom without more funding

House Majority leader says NEA stirs up fears of teacher cuts when it wants more funding

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2005

The president of Alaska's largest public school teachers union said Thursday that if the Alaska Legislature does not increase funding for salaries this session, teachers will be laid off.

"Should (the increase) not be available, there will be a devastating impact on schools. This is Armageddon in our world," said Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, a union comprising 12,500 teachers and other public school employees.

Bjork dropped several warnings during his noon news conference from Anchorage. If this year's increase in funding for operating costs remains at $70 million, teachers in Anchorage will be given pink slips along with employees in other districts, he said.

Alaska House of Representatives majority leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said every year the NEA stirs up fear of layoffs when it isn't satisfied with the increase of spending.

"Their assertion that we are under-funding education is just not true," said Coghill, calling last year's $80 million increase and this year's proposed $70 million increase "historic."

School districts are in the process of writing their budgets now.

"You can't say I'm going to heat the building a little bit less, or I'm only going to pay for a part of my water bill," Bjork said. "So the people have to go."

Juneau Superintendent Peggy Cowan said it's true that there will be a budget shortfall of about $300,000 based on a budget that includes the proposed $70 million.

That means tenure or non-tenure teachers can keep their jobs. But the district would have to eliminate some positions, such as temporary counseling jobs, and possibly cut school bus routes shorter than 1.5 miles from elementary schools, Cowan said.

Democrats have favored more funds for schools; Republicans say they cannot increase funding higher than the $70 million because of budget constraints.

"What were trying to do is figure out what is possible and what is sustainable," Coghill said.

Earlier in the session, to stay above water, teachers and school administrators testified they wanted an increase of $41 million on top of the $70 million the Republicans suggested in HB 1.

The $70 million amounts to about $4,919 per student; Bjork said that cash barely reaches the classroom.

The Senate passed a bill that said $38 million of the total $70 million should be spent on filling the public employee and teacher retirement shortfall, which has grown to $5.7 billion after rising medical costs, demographics and other factors.

Some $24 million of the total increase must go to adjusting the budgets for inflation. This leaves schools with $8 million to be spent on the classrooms, or an increase of $60 per student, when divided by Alaska's 133,000 students, said Bjork.

With 27 days left in the Legislature, the NEA feels there is enough time to pass a bill that offers more funding.

HB 173 looks at updating the cost differential between districts. If adopted, all districts would receive some portion of the total $82 million in estimated costs.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.

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