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School funds hike won't fill local gap

Juneau School District expects a shortfall of $3.5 million next year

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2004

A proposal by the Murkowski administration to increase education funding would add about $2.2 million to the Juneau schools in each of the next two years. But the Juneau School District is facing a shortfall of $3.5 million for next school year alone, said Business Manager Gary Epperson.

"We'll sure take it. That helps," he said of Murkowski's proposed increase. "That makes it a little tight, still being short 1.3 million (dollars). So we still have a lot of work to do."

The Juneau School District's operating budget this school year is roughly $43 million.

On Friday, at the Association of Alaska School Boards' meeting in Anchorage, Gov. Frank Murkowski said he would ask the Legislature to decide early in the session to increase money for K-12 education for the next two fiscal years. The session begins Jan. 10.

AASB Executive Director Carl Rose said attendees responded with a standing ovation.

The Legislature previously hasn't approved two years of education funding at one time, the legal issue being that one Legislature cannot bind another. The state Department of Law said a single Legislature, which meets for two years, probably could set two years of funding, said administration budget director Cheryl Frasca.

Early funding decisions would allow school districts to plan better, Murkowski said.

Districts must set their budgets before knowing how much money the Legislature will give them. Facing funding gaps, districts sometimes send layoff notices to nontenured teachers, only to discover later that they can afford to keep them. Meanwhile, some of the teachers have drifted to other jobs, Murkowski said.

"Our schools and our students deserve a predictable level of state funding so that good teachers are rewarded with a 'thank you' at the end of the year instead of a pink slip," the governor said in a statement. "Early, stable funding will let our school districts focus on teaching rather than on money."

Carol Comeau, superintendent of the Anchorage School District, said it was looking at a $27.6 million shortfall, $12 million of which was caused by an increase in retirement-fund obligations.

Murkowski's proposal, if enacted, would go a long way to narrowing the budget gap, and allow the district to negotiate in good faith with employees, she said.

The proposal increase what's called the state's foundation funding by $126 million over the next two fiscal years.

The increase includes $39 million in fiscal 2006, which is next school year, and $40 million in fiscal 2007 to cover increased retirement-system costs for school districts.

Public-employee retirement funds, invested in the stock market, have lost some of their value in recent years, and employers such as cities and school districts must make up the losses.

The Juneau School District's retirement-system obligation will rise next school year by $1 million, Epperson said. Nearly half of Juneau's new state funding would be needed to cover that.

Murkowski's proposal also includes an estimated $23 million in increased funding for fiscal 2006 and $24 million the following fiscal year to cover hikes in day-to-day costs such as insurance, fuel, and other fixed costs.

NEA-Alaska, a large teachers union, said the Murkowski proposal provides funds to cover future inflation and retirement-system costs. But it doesn't address years of generally inadequate funding, union president Bill Bjork said in a statement.

"Alaska's children are feeling the impacts of two decades of inadequate state funding - plus the loss of buying power caused by inflation," he said. "These factors are undermining the quality of our children's education through cuts in academic and vocational programs; overcrowded classrooms; loss of extracurricular activities (or huge jumps in student activity fees); and a shrinking pool of quality teachers, administrators and support staff."

NEA-Alaska is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state that seeks more funding for schools on the grounds that the state constitution requires adequate funding. The state has argued that education funding is a political decision.

Murkowski said Friday he wasn't comfortable about the legitimacy of the lawsuit, which followed an $82 million increase in state funding for education for this school year.

"I didn't think it was a gracious way of saying thanks," Murkowski said.

New Senate President Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, and new Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, spoke well of Murkowski's funding plan, The Associated Press reported.

State Sen. Gretchen Guess, D-Anchorage, said Democrats would welcome the proposal.

"Any time we are making education a priority, it's going to get a warm reception from the Democrats," she told The Associated Press.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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