Fight expected over hike in school funds

Governor's proposed $90 million education increase too high for some lawmakers, not enough for others

Posted: Friday, December 02, 2005

Alaska lawmakers are certain education funding will increase next year, but they will have to fight over a desired amount.

Gov. Frank Murkowski kicked off the debate last month when he proposed to spend an additional $90 million on Alaska public schools next year. For some it was not enough. Others said it was too much.

"There's always a battle," said Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee.

Schools districts need more money each year to pay for pensions, insurance and inflation, all of which rise every year, said Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association-Alaska.

Because schools were "flat-funded" over the last two decades, ending in 2003, increases for classroom materials and other needs were deferred, Bjork said. Flat funding means districts got more money for extra students but not an increase of funding per student.

Under the governor's proposal, funding would increase from its current level of $4,919 to $5,347 per student.

NEA-Alaska, which has 12,500 members, and Democrats say the governor's proposal is "inadequate."

"We applaud what the governor has done," Bjork said. But his group will ask for $140 million next year, with the union saying more money is needed for salaries, rising fuel costs, special education jobs and ways to reduce classroom sizes.

Earlier this year, the Juneau School Board approved a new target ratio for kindergarten through second grade of 22 students per teacher, lowered from the 25 set three years ago.

Legislators spent a day in Alaska classrooms last month to learn more about schools' demands.

Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, noticed teachers spend up to thousands of dollars out of their pockets to equip classrooms with learning materials.

"Teachers' classroom supply budgets are completely inadequate," Ellis said.

In a recent minority caucus meeting, Democratic legislators agreed on asking for $120 million.

Ellis said the governor's proposal addresses rising fixed costs, and not solutions to make the schools better. He also wants to see a push for more spending on preschool education for children of all backgrounds.

House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, will be one of the first lawmakers next session to say the funding requests are too much.

"If you're going to be responsible for a budget, you better ask the question 'why,'" Coghill said.

Even though members of his own caucus may disagree with him, he said he views the schools as being in good shape with teachers' salaries - 12th in the nation - faring well among income averages in the state and the national rankings for teachers' salaries.

While 75 percent of the state's teachers are coming from outside Alaska, Bjork said current salaries are not high enough to attract new workers. Coghill said every state in the union is struggling to be competitive and Alaska is doing better than states with salaries ranked at the bottom.

Last year, the Democrats were asking for a $90 million increase, while the governor proposed $62 million and the Alaska Legislature ultimately approved about $70 million.

Wilken said the governor's proposal is just about right.

"When he rolled out his proposal, I thought to myself, 'Thank you,'" he said. "And who knows, we may add even more."

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