School funding measure pops up in state Senate

Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007

A proposal to fund Alaska's public schools appeared late Saturday in the Senate Finance Committee just four days shy of the end of the legislative session.

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The measure would plug another $155 million next year into the K-12 system that is currently funded at almost $1 billion.

It remains to be seen if the plan has enough support to move forward.

K-12 education accounts for more than 40 percent of state operating budget and lawmakers have locked horns over how best to spread the money among the many schools districts and their widely varied needs.

The proposed changes to the state's complicated foundation formula appeared in the Senate after House leaders hit an impasse in their efforts to hammer out long-term reform.

"They see we are struggling over here so they are making an attempt to fix the problem," said House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

Chenault and his fellow co-chairman, Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, have been wrangling over how best to fund certain rural school districts and still keep Anchorage whole.

The Senate proposal drew applause from educators.

It would leave the per pupil allocation at the current rate of $5,380 in the coming budget year and raise it by $200 in fiscal year 2009.

Association of Alaska School Boards Executive Director Carl Rose said the base student allocation increase would allow school districts to finalize their budgets early and avoid the yearly ritual of sending out lay-off notices in the spring only to rehire later.

"It increases the BSA in '09 which is forward funding," said Rose. "That's huge."

The proposal also has the state shoulder the burden of school districts retirement costs by paying everything above a 12.5 percent employer contribution rate.

It would fund district cost factors, which accounts for geographic differences among school districts, at $48.6 million. Half of the amount would be based on a controversial study by the Institute of Social and Economic Reform at the University of Alaska.

It also adds $18.7 million in funding for intensive needs students based on a percentage of the number of students in the school.

And it will change how local local property tax contributions are made.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, a member of the Republican minority, characterized the plan as a "cram down" and railed against the last minute process that leaves very little time for committee hearings.

"They should be ashamed of themselves to hold something this important to now," Wilken said. "How can you do good committee work when there's no committee? That's the distressing part of this."

The bill will be heard again today in the Senate Finance Committee.

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