Schools unlikely to see long-term plan

Divide between urban, rural needs makes funding agreement difficult

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Work on a school funding plan continued behind closed doors Tuesday at the Capitol, with just one day to go before the end of the regular session today.

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With the public and most legislators excluded from the process, lawmakers and observers paid as much attention to how the education budget was being adopted as to what was being adopted.

Doing business the way things always have been done disappointed Gov. Sarah Palin.

"I think it's real frustrating to the public," Palin said.

Over the weekend, the finance committees of the House and Senate revealed education plans for the first time in the session just a few days before its end. Palin pointed out she'd asked the Legislature to focus on education funding as its first priority some five months ago.

Though the finance committees' plans initially won some praise, the debate soon moved back behind closed doors as the battles continued over how to share funds between urban and rural schools.

Palin said the public should see those discussions, even though that's not the way the Legislature typically does things.

"We have to have faith we can change the culture here in state government," she said.

Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Bethel, said what was happening with education funding in the last days of the session was a "major disappointment."

The finance committees' plans, both of which addressed the high cost of educating children in rural areas by adopting 50 percent of a study on area cost differences that gives more money to rural schools.

"As a rural legislator I feel we have compromised in settling for half the area cost differential study," she said.

Bigger city schools have so many economies of scale that their education dollars go much farther than they do in the small cities or villages, she said.

"Right now rural Alaska's students are so shortchanged," she said.

House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she was afraid the Legislature only would agree upon a one-year fix to the combined education, retirement and revenue sharing plans that will leave major problems to be addressed in future years.

"It'll be for one year, and it'll be ugly," she said.

Juneau falls in the middle of most of the plans she's seen, Kerttula said.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said the last minute clashes over education shouldn't surprise anyone.

"We could have a special session as early as next week if we don't get this resolved," Harris said.

Pat Forgey can be reached at

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