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Legislative negotiators seek education resolution

Posted: April 22, 2014 - 10:34pm

JUNEAU — House and Senate negotiators worked toward resolution Tuesday on an education package that sent the legislative session into overtime, nibbling away at points of possible agreement. While some lawmakers are eager to wrap things up, a key lawmaker said the process would not be rushed.

“It will come together really as quickly as we can find consensus in the building over either today, tomorrow or throughout the coming week,” said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, who is chairman of the bill’s conference committee. Hawker promised an open process that would allow the public and other lawmakers — several of whom sat in on the proceedings throughout the day — to follow the committee’s process in drafting a compromise bill.

The six-member committee, made up of three representatives and three senators, met for several hours Tuesday, mainly going over the differences in the House and Senate approaches to HB278. Members planned to meet with their respective caucuses, in hopes of finding additional areas of compromise.

Education — specifically, education funding — became a point of contention between the House and Senate in the waning days of the legislative session, and a lack of consensus sent the session past its scheduled end of Sunday. State law calls for a 90-day session, but the Alaska Constitution allows for lawmakers to meet for up to 121 days.

Hawker said funding was “the greatest sticking point, I think, in the entire piece of legislation.”

Gov. Sean Parnell, in the original version of HB278, proposed an increase in the per-student funding formula, also known as the base student allocation, of about $200 over three years, a level he called a starting point for discussions. The House bumped it up to about $300 over three years and proposed an additional $30 million in one-time funding to be distributed to districts. The Senate has proposed $100 million over three years outside the funding formula, which some lawmakers say is broken and in need of review.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the additional aid over three years would allow time for a study on how the state funds schools. The Senate version of the bill included such a study.

Many public school advocates favor putting any additional aid into the formula as a way to provide predictable funding that districts can budget, but several groups also have urged more funding in the formula beyond what the House proposed. Minority Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have endorsed an increase in the allocation of about $650 over three years to help districts stave off cuts, in line with what groups like the parent-supported Great Alaska Schools and Alaska Federation of Natives have urged.

“There’s a simple fix to this stalemate,” Senate Minority Leader Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said in a statement Monday. “Do what schools, teachers, parents, students, and business leaders agree is what our public schools need — increase the BSA $400 next year and $125 the following two years, then let everyone go home.”

The Senate bill also included support for charter, residential and correspondence schools, funding to improve Internet service for schools with lower download speeds and a grant program to provide students with electronic devices such as tablets to help modernize learning. The total cost of the Senate package for next year would be $125 million — and about $370 million over three years. The House approach, by comparison, would cost about $210 million over three years, according to the Legislative Finance Division.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he doubted the education community would be satisfied with the House approach.

“This is the ... education year for the Legislature and to come up and endorse those low numbers added to the BSA isn’t going to be satisfactory,” he said.

Hawker said the House “has taken an approach that gave a great deal of deference to living within our means and being very careful in recognizing that as the future evolves it’s always easier to raise something and it’s nearly impossible to take something away.”

He said there was a sense, too, from members of the public and other lawmakers that they weren’t getting the value they wanted from the public school system.

“The concern is that we want to see some performance improvements before we, the Legislature, step up and simply write a check, essentially rewarding the status quo,” Hawker said. “This is the balance that we’re here in this committee to discuss.”

The conference committee flagged other issues for further consideration, including teacher tenure, school bond debt reimbursement and the effect of raising the required local contribution level for schools. Meyer said the feeling on that latter point spoke to school funding being a shared responsibility between the state and local governments.

Meyer offered Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, a fellow conferee, to speak with House members about some of the initiatives in the Senate bill about which the Senate feels strongly.

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