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Union head says schools need more funding

Posted: January 30, 2013 - 10:15pm

JUNEAU — The state’s public school system needs more funding if goals like the 90 percent graduation rate set by the governor are to be met, the president of a major Alaska teachers’ union said Wednesday.

Ron Fuhrer of NEA-Alaska told The Associated Press the state is “starving Alaska students, starving their opportunity for an education and ultimately being a productive member of society.”

“Why should Alaska students suffer because the governor is saying we need to be accountable? We’ll be accountable,” he said. “We’re not in disagreement. We want to improve.”

Gov. Sean Parnell earlier this month said there have been “record increases” in education funding over the past five years, while graduation rates remain below 70 percent. He said Alaska can do better, and that will take more money. But he said the money “needs to buy results for our kids and our families.”

“That’s what we’ll be focused on,” Parnell said.

The governor has proposed a series of budget initiatives to that end, including continued funding for performance scholarships, a pet project of his; digital, or distance, learning; and early childhood education programs.

Fuhrer said he hadn’t had a chance to study Parnell’s proposals in-depth but said the best education a student can get is one-on-one with a teacher.

One of NEA-Alaska’s priorities is an increase in the base student allocation, or BSA, the formula guaranteeing districts a certain amount of cash per student. Without an increase, Fuhrer said, schools will continue to see their budgets tighten, and that will mean increased class sizes, staff cuts and fewer options for students in terms of electives.

There was a lengthy debate over the funding issue last year, with Parnell saying he was open to discussing ways to help school districts meet costs but had problems with increases in formula programs. Both Parnell and some Republican lawmakers, particularly on the House side, said they wanted more accountability for how any extra money was spent.

Lawmakers wound up passing an aid package, fashioned in the House in the waning days of last year’s regular session, that included money targeted for certain programs and needs, like vocational education and student busing. The measure also changed the millage rate, which affects the amount districts contribute to their schools.

The House majority, in announcing the package last year, said the House Finance Committee also would put together a working group over the interim to look at education funding. Rep. Bill Thomas, then co-chair of the committee, took charge of that effort but it never got off the ground, Rep. Alan Austerman said. Thomas lost his re-election bid, and Austerman replaced him on the committee.

Austerman, R-Kodiak, said the panel would spend a lot of time talking to the Department of Education about its total budget.

On Wednesday, a group of House Democrats led by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage introduced legislation that would increase the base student allocation by $286, to $5,966, and have it adjusted annually for inflation. HB95 also would require that districts submit annual plans for achieving their goals and hiring “highly qualified” teachers.

“We’ve been having this conversation for at least 20 years,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, a co-sponsor of the bill and former Anchorage school board member. She said the “cost of everything” is increasing, from fuel to maintenance costs, teacher salaries to school lunches, leaving districts in a perpetual position of “catch-up.”

“Schools need the resources that they can count on,” she said. “The BSA is something they can count on.”

The bill states the allocation was last increased in fiscal year 2009, a mistake that Gara planned to amend. The last increase was in 2011, according to legislative analyst who researched the issue for Gara.

The analyst, Roger Withington, in a memo to Gara said the allocation for the current fiscal year is $286 less than if it had been adjusted for inflation annually since 2011.

Fuhrer said he would like to see an increase of $400 per student, to allow districts to “catch up and keep up.”

There are other elements to education funding. The Legislature also has covered payments into the teacher retirement system and costs like student transportation and major maintenance — helping to increase the overall total spending.

House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, said the Legislature has acted in recent years to help keep costs like that from becoming “hindering factors in being able to educate our kids.”

“The Legislature has continued to put in money to make sure that the maintenance, the energy, ... the various costs that have increased are covered,” he said, adding: “Obviously, we’ve put in more than if the BSA were on an inflationary track anyway.”

He said he expects continued discussion about targeted funding but also discussion on addressing student performance, which he said is a focus for his caucus.

Follow Becky Bohrer on Twitter at http://twitter.com/beckybohrerap.

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