State funds aid passage of the school budget

District receives one-time $11.2 million grant to pay down retirement programs

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2007

With a boost in state education funding, the Juneau Assembly quickly and unanimously passed a $78.9 million school district budget at its special meeting Wednesday evening.

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"It took probably three or four minutes, and the reason why is we are very lucky," Assembly member David Stone said. "The state took good care of us. Otherwise, I think it would have been a contentious issue."

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said she is pleased with the Assembly's decision to adopt the Juneau School District's budget without hesitation.

"The real news is the city funded to cap, which is the legal limit they can fund to, which shows tremendous support for kids and education," she said.

In accordance with the city charter, the Assembly was required to adopt a school district budget by the end of the month.

Action taken by the Alaska Legislature prior to the end of its session made configuring a final budget easier for the school district and city this year, Cowan said.

The state allocation for each student remained the same as last year, but the city received additional state funds to cover staff retirement costs and the higher cost of doing business in Juneau, compared to Anchorage.

The overall district budget is greater than last year by nearly $10 million, Cowan said, mainly due to a one-time $11.2 million state grant to pay down district retirement programs.

"It's elusive because people think we have $10 million more in our budget to spend," Cowan said.

The money is accounted for in the budget, but it goes straight toward the retirement programs without landing in the hands of the school district, she said.

"There's not $10 million more for increases in programs," Cowan said.

Besides providing $22.5 million of the school district's $63.9 operating budget, the Assembly approved money for special funds: $4.4 million to the transportation fund and $10.5 million for student activities, debt services and grants.

The budget required $1.1 million less from the city than was predicted this spring, according to the superintendent.

"Because of the legislative funding, the district has expanded programs for students, but the cost to the city was less than what we projected in March before the Legislature acted on the education budget," she said.

The district was able to shell out $796,000 toward program increases, however, because of legislative action to tackle the retirement costs this session.

"The largest portion went to reducing class size. Another went to adding teachers and para-educators for special education students," Cowan said.

Pay for substitutes also was increased, she said.

Higher oil costs and uncertainty about how the Legislature will prioritize education funding next year could make it a lot more difficult to reach a decision next year on the district's budget, Stone said.

"We also recognized as an Assembly that this is a one-time thing," Stone said. "What is going to happen next year?"

The Assembly's decision on education funding is a testament to the time and energy put into the budget, Cowan said.

"They approved what the School Board brought them, which was a vote of confidence in the School Board," she said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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