JUNEAU -- Gov. Tony Knowles on Friday signed bills to spend $18.4 million more running schools this year, plus $105 million building and repairing them.
Included is money for repairs at Juneau-Douglas High School. He also signed a bill that delays until 2004 a requirement that students pass a test to graduate from high school.
Senate Bill 174 gives districts more money to run their schools. By bumping the state's basic school funding formula by $70 per student, it will pump an additional $14 million into the $665 million school funding formula for the coming school year.
The bill also provides $3.8 million in tax relief for growing communities by requiring them to count only 50 percent of increases in their assessed property value toward the required amount they must pay for their schools. The bill also fixes a glitch in the funding formula that penalized Petersburg and Wrangell schools at a cost of $600,000.
Senate Finance Committee Co-chairman Dave Donley said the measure, sponsored by the Finance Committee, represents a major commitment to education.
"I think it's the biggest increase as long as I've been in the Legislature," said Donley, an Anchorage Republican. "I know for sure it's the biggest in 10 years."
Education Department officials couldn't say late Friday how the spending increase compared to past years.
The new funding wasn't as much as a Knowles task force had recommended. But Knowles said the final measure was an improvement over the original bill, which would have stopped all state funding for the North Slope Borough, giving the money to other districts.
"Considering that Senate Bill 174 started out as a flawed, mean-spirited financial raid on one school district, we've come a long way," Knowles said.
Knowles also signed two school construction bills.
House Bill 234 provides $76 million to build three rural schools and do major maintenance on 28 others. The money will come from the sale of bonds backed by Alaska's share of a tobacco settlement.
The bill also provides $33 million for university and port and harbor projects.
A related measure, House Bill 90, authorizes $29 million to partly reimburse the cost of a new school in Kiana, major repairs at Juneau's high school and repairs at schools in the Aleutians East Borough.
Representatives of a group that sued the state over the lack of rural school construction said the new money was welcome, but the Legislature needed to do more before their concerns would be satisfied.
"Of course, we're pleased when we can build some schools. But it's about $230 million short of keeping school buildings in rural and urban Alaska modern," said Spike Jorgensen, executive director of Citizens for the Educational Advancement of Alaska's Children.
Superior Court Judge John Reese has ruled that the state violated the state constitution and federal civil rights law by discriminating against rural schools in allocating construction and maintenance funds.
Reese said the system of construction funding was flawed because rural and urban districts were treated differently.
Howard Trickey, an attorney for the rural schools group, said the bond bills don't satisfy the group because the flawed funding system is still in place. The group has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to negotiate a settlement, he said. If that doesn't work, the group could go back to court for a remedy.
Donley said some lawmakers backed the bond bills as a response to the suit, but that wasn't his motivation.
"I think his (Reese's) analysis of the law was wrong," Donley said, "but at the same time we're continuing to try to address the education needs in the state."
Jorgensen of the rural schools group also criticized the Senate Bill 174 provision that gives close to $4 million in tax relief to growing, organized boroughs. That won't help students in unorganized parts of rural Alaska.
Donley said if unorganized rural areas were willing to form boroughs and levy a property tax, they too could benefit.
Knowles also signed Senate Bill 133, which delays the exit exam requirement until 2004. The measure allows students with disabilities to receive a diploma by completing an alternative assessment. It further provides for possible waivers from the exam for some students, such as those who arrive in Alaska late in their high school years.
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