The Alaska Senate on Monday unanimously approved putting $1 billion of surplus revenues into an education savings account, a move school districts applauded as a good first step.
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Senate Finance Co-Chairman Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said lawmakers are heeding the public's wish that they not spend this year's temporary boon that resulted from high oil prices.
"We took the vast majority of the $1.3 billion surplus anticipated this year and set it aside to accomplish two things: saving dollars and placing them in our highest priority which is education," Hoffman said.
The Senate voted 19-0 to forward-fund education for the 2008-09 school year by depositing the $1 billion from the general fund into the Public Education Fund lawmakers established in 2005. The bill now moves to the state House of Representatives.
The proposal was hammered out between Senate and House majority leaders. In announcing the agreement last week, they said they hope to alleviate the challenge school districts face when they are forced to wait until the Legislature passes the state budget in May to finalize their budgets.
Educators welcomed the proposal but warned the deposit itself is not enough.
Carol Comeau, superintendent of the Anchorage School District, called the $1 billion savings account a "step in the right direction."
"But the next step needs to be some kind of forward funding inflation proofing," Comeau said.
Without it, she said her district would still be forced to decide between cutting programs or heating buildings, or sending out pink slips to staff, before they know what their budget would allow.
"If they just leave the base student allocation at $5,380 and put this money in and just fund us a year ahead then we aren't any better off than we are now because it's not going to accommodate those increases," Comeau said.
Superintendent Steve Atwater of the Lake and Peninsula School District also viewed the Senate's action as a positive step.
"And it's one all school districts are happy to see, but it doesn't tell the whole story," he said. "People should not feel like we are done with education until all the pieces play out."
The main pieces still in play include the base student allocation; the district cost differential, which is a formula which takes into account the differing costs urban and rural districts face; and retirement contributions.
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