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Senate passes education funding increase

Posted: February 11, 2012 - 8:28pm

JUNEAU — A bill that guarantees three years of increased funding to Alaska school districts passed the state Senate on Friday.

The vote was 18-2, with Republican Sens. John Coghill of North Pole and Fred Dyson of Eagle River dissenting. The measure now goes to the House.

Senate Education Committee co-chairs Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, and Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, said SB171 was a response to educators who showed overwhelming support for a multi-year increase to give districts long-term planning ability with their budgets.

Thomas, in a floor speech, called the increase a “modest” 2 percent that doesn’t even keep pace inflation. 

Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, emphasized her belief that districts must be able to project a few years into the future. She is a former president of the Anchorage School Board.

“We allocate the money one year, and the next it’s gone,” Davis said, adding that important programs are often lost in the shuffle. “There are questions to be answered about base student allocation, but I applaud my colleagues for this.”

Dyson did not speak before the vote. Coghill said he supports increased funding but was unsure whether the bill took the best approach.

“I vote ‘no’ not because I’m against education but as a question mark in the process,” said Coghill, who is not a member of either committee that pushed the bill forward for a vote. “I realize this is just a round in discussion among all members of (the Legislature), but it’s the only round I have a voice.”

Gov. Sean Parnell said in an interview this week that his concern with an increase guaranteed over a few years is that the state would become locked into funding it could not provide if Alaska’s economy worsens.

SB171 would increase the current base student allocation over each of the next three fiscal years. It would cost the state an estimated $30.6 million next year and $95.5 million each year beginning in 2014.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, said he appreciates the Senate’s quick movement in getting their suggestion to the House, but he said he sees the value in both their stance and the governor’s. He said there will be no rushed timeline to move the bill.

“At the end of the day (SB171) may be exactly what happens,” Chenault said, adding that he would be fine with that or funding specific district needs like transportation and healthcare. “But there are lots of options out there we’re studying right now, and I’ll support whatever looks best.”

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