Rural school funding change likely to be approved by state

Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Some rural school districts that had been gradually losing money under a 1998 school funding formula probably will get a break next year.

House and Senate budget leaders have agreed to put about $1 million into the capital budget to make up the cash 22 districts otherwise would lose under the funding formula.

Rep. Bill Williams, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, had been pushing for the change to help ease urban-rural tensions.

He sponsored a bill to that effect, which passed the House, but stalled in the Senate Health Education and Social Services Committee.

By attaching the funding for the schools to the capital budget, Williams, a Saxman Republican, gets around the Senate HESS Committee roadblock.

Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, who is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he is willing to go along with the addition to the capital budget, which mainly funds construction projects.

The capital budget already has passed the Senate without the schools' funding. If the Senate objects to that or any other changes in the budget, the measure would have to go to a House-Senate conference committee.

Kelly said that not all senators are happy with the addition but it's unlikely the Senate would seek a conference committee on the capital budget.

The $1.2 billion capital budget is carefully crafted to achieve support among lawmakers, and opening it up again in a conference committee would risk all sorts of other deals falling apart, Kelly said.

The change in funding for the 22 school districts would be only for one year, until the results of a new study are in. The affected districts range from Lower Kuskokwim to Valdez to Yukon Flats.

The study, which is supposed to be finished in November, is intended to give a more accurate picture of what it costs to educate students in different parts of the state.

Representatives of some rural areas have complained bitterly that the 1998 formula hurt their districts.

Those who supported the new formula said the rural districts had been receiving too much money and the new formula is gradually fixing that inequity.

House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat, said the one-year change for the 22 districts is overdue, but does not satisfy Democrats' concerns about equity in school funding between urban and rural Alaska.

The House had earlier tried to force Williams' bill through the Senate by attaching it to Senate Bill 345. That measure, which has passed the Senate, would allow school districts to bill Medicaid for some health services provided to special education students.

While the rural school funding issue apparently has been settled, a conference committee will work out other differences between the House and Senate versions of Senate Bill 345.

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