Education task force faces tight timeline

Juneau leaders concerned about money for schools

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Alaska Legislature failed in four months of closed-door battles to find a way to divide education money among schools so everyone would be happy.

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Legislative leaders now hope a new task force can do the job in even less time.

Later this week the task force - made up of five senators, five representatives and one appointee of the governor - will meet in Anchorage to begin what may be a monumental job.

Still, Juneau leaders say they've got high hopes that the process will produce something better than they've got now.

"They've got a huge task and very little time," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.

The task force is scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday and Friday to begin trying to craft a state education funding plan. Task force Chairman Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, announced Tuesday the meetings would be Web-cast live on KTOO's "Gavel to Gavel."

The current plan, known as the Foundation Formula, satisfies few people, including Kerttula.

"I would say the foundation formula is broken," she said.

During the legislative session that ended in May, lawmakers delayed considering education funding publicly until the last minute and then agreed to wait until next year to make fundamental changes.

The Foundation Formula uses Anchorage as a base, and then provides additional money to most other school districts based on their additional costs.

In Juneau, the district gets one half of one percent more per student than Anchorage, said Peggy Cowan, superintendent of the Juneau School District.

Cowan said the cost of education in Juneau is much higher than that, however, and she would like to see some improvement there.

"Any change to the Foundation Formula could have an impact on Juneau," she said.

The University of Alaska's Institute for Economic and Social Research, or ISER, did a study which found much different educational costs than the Foundation Formula, but it has not been adopted.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the ISER study better reflected the higher cost of education in smaller communities, but would have boosted funding in those communities at the expense of Anchorage if no new money were added.

"I liked the ISER study. Others didn't," he said.

That study would give smaller communities even more dollars per student than Juneau, but Elton said that would probably be fair.

"We know that a dollar given to a school in Kwethluk doesn't go nearly as far as a dollar given to a school in Anchorage," he said.

Cowan and others also said Juneau has its own high costs to deal with, such as those for intensive-needs students. Those expensive-to-educate children often gravitate to regional centers were services such as medical care are available.

"We need to figure out how districts that have large numbers of intensive-needs students are compensated for them," Elton agreed.

The senator also said he wants to see a better, longer-term solution for dealing with the state's charter schools.

"Charter schools are beyond the experimental stage, but they're still a pretty new concept," he said.

The Juneau Community Charter School was one of those which took a funding cut in the last Legislature.

"We know there are cost efficiencies in larger schools, but sometimes smaller schools are a better learning environment," he said.

One member of the task force, Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, said he doubted there was enough time this summer to solve the multiple, complex issues.

"There's some pretty heavy-duty things in there that need to be fixed," he said. "We could do it, but we wouldn't be proud of it."

Wilken said he'd be happy if the task force could just identify what the big issues are for the Legislature to address and then develop a plan to go about addressing them.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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