Funding keeps most districts at status quo

NEA of Alaska says legislators could have done more for schools

Posted: Thursday, June 02, 2005

Some state lawmakers have hailed a $70 million increase in education spending next year as one of the successes of the Legislature this year.

But with inflationary increases and rising health care and retirement costs, some school districts say the funding boost merely keeps their heads above water.

Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, said with an oil surplus of more than $500 million, the state could have done more. NEA-Alaska represents more than 12,500 teachers and faculty members in K-12 schools across the state.

"Alaska lost a golden opportunity," Bjork said.

This year's operating budget increases per-student spending from $4,576 to $4,919, representing $70 million in new money. Many school districts requested an increase to $5,120, which would have cost the state about $110 million above last year's $82 million increase.

About $38 million of next year's $70 million increase will be used for retirement costs and some $24 million will be used to cover fuel costs and other inflationary increases, Bjork said.

"That leaves only $8 million statewide for anything extraordinary," Bjork said.

Speaker of the House John Harris, R-Valdez, said the state's capital budget this year also sends millions to schools for maintenance and renovations. Another proposal passed by the Legislature extends a bond-debt reimbursement program for school construction and maintenance projects.

The capital budget bill will allow schools to eliminate more than half of the projects listed for renovations on the Department of Education's deferred maintenance list.

"With all due respect to the capital budget, buildings don't get kids educated," Bjork said. "As important as construction is it just doesn't get the job done."

He said a $110 million increase would have shielded districts from cuts and allowed them to lower class sizes and hire more teachers, staff and equipment.

Harris said more education funding is always better but some lawmakers had to draw the line at $70 million.

"I guarantee you that there were legislators that thought $70 million wasn't enough," he said. "But there were legislators that thought $70 million was too much."

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau said the district expects to cut at least $7.8 million from its budget this year.

"The $70 million is very positive but it will still force us to make cuts in programs going into next year," she said.

She said ongoing labor negotiations and unexpected costs could push that number higher.

The district already plans to cut three assistant principle positions and a director of community services, Comeau said. It also will make a 10 percent cut in supplies and equipment for every department in every school and increase class sizes by 0.25 percent in every grade, she said.

Although some districts will see cuts, others will be able to restore some items that have been trimmed from their budgets over the last few years.

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the funding will allow the district to almost return to its funding level from two years ago.

"This is basically flat (funding) for us," she said.

She said over the last two years the district has had to increase class sizes, eliminate some bus services and cut money for supplies and textbooks.

Melody Douglas, chief financial officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said the district has been cutting its budget since the mid-1990s. Two years ago it cut 10 percent of its teaching staff to balance the budget, she said.

The increased funding this year will allow it to lower classroom sizes. Douglas said the state must review the formula for distributing school funding for rural and urban areas.

"I'm hopeful that the district cost factor conversation will continue into the next legislative session as that will generate much needed relief for students in the state of Alaska," she said.

Representatives of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District and the Bering Strait School District also said the increased funding would facilitate flat budgets with some modest increases in supplies or staff.

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