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Democrats offer education legislation

Posted: February 20, 2014 - 9:37pm

JUNEAU — Minority Democrats on Thursday pitched an education package that includes an increase in the per-pupil funding formula and allows charter schools to be located within neighborhood schools when space is available.

The bills include a proposed increase in the per-pupil formula, known as the base student allocation, of $404 per student, a one-time grant of $500 for charter schools to assist with startup costs, and a requirement for traffic control at and around school zones.

Democratic lawmakers hope the allocation increase will hold off teacher layoffs for next year.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Kodiak districts alone are looking at possibly laying off 212 teachers for next year without such an increase.

“It’s not enough to increase the BSA,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage. “It is something (school districts) need to rely on.”

The bill asks school districts to file an annual report regarding funding needs in order to maintain the student-teacher ratio from the previous year as a means for the Legislature to know what raises in the BSA are needed for budgetary requirements.

The bill also requires the amount for the BSA to be tied to inflation rates provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The package compares with an omnibus education bill from Gov. Sean Parnell that borrows some elements from bills already floating around the Capitol, including a repeal of the high school exit exam. Parnell’s bill also would raise the base student allocation by $201 over three years and includes provisions aimed at improving access to charter schools, among other things.

Democrats unveiled their package just days after an education rally in front of the Capitol. The rally was in support of public education and in opposition of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for public money to go to private or religious schools.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, told reporters lawmakers are looking at the different pieces of legislation to see how they can fit together to move the education system forward. He said he expected the Legislature to put together a package by the end of session to address some of the districts’ needs.

Asked if the Democrats’ bills would get hearings, he said he hadn’t seen them and didn’t know but would assume parts of the package are included among the already pending education bills.

He said he didn’t know what the right number would be for the base student allocation but said not all the money in the formula is spent in the classroom and can be used for other costs.

General funding appropriations for K-12 education have gone up since fiscal year 2011, according to information recently provided a Senate subcommittee by the Legislative Finance Division. The figure includes such things as foundation funding, student transportation, school construction and major maintenance and retirement.

Under the proposed Democratic bill, the BSA would be raised by 10 percent for charter school students in order to cover rent and utilities that are currently paid out from classroom funds. The bill also provides a one-time $500 grant for furnishings.

“We don’t know the overall costs right now for this,” House Minority Leader Chris Tuck said. “I would say it is probably around two to three million dollars for the charter schools.”

Tuck, D-Anchorage, said the extra funding might have to come from savings.

The bill includes a one-time $5,000 bonus for school administrators deemed “principals of excellence” by the state education commissioner for the next fiscal year.

The bills will be introduced Friday, more than a third of the way into the session.

“Good things can take a long time to happen,” Gardner said, referencing the timing of the bills. “If they don’t pass, then we will present them in the next legislative session.”

Tuck stated he believed there was time this session for the bills to work their way through committee and onto the floor for a vote.

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