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Panel hears pleas for school funds

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

Quality education in the state of Alaska cannot continue without more funding for school districts.

That's the message school officials, parents and school board members sent to legislators in Juneau during a meeting of the House Special Education Committee's subcommittee on education funding.

The subcommittee met Thursday to discuss four education funding bills currently before the House of Representatives and to hear feedback from constituents statewide.

The bills included:

House Bill 220, sponsored by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, was filed last year and would increase the base student allocation for schools to "catch up" with inflation since 1998. The bill as currently written would increase the base student allocation to $4,303 per student -- a 3.3 percent increase -- though Gara said he plans to rewrite the bill to reflect current year data.

House Bill 222, sponsored by Rep. Mary Kapsner, D-Juneau, and cosponsored by Gara, would increase the base student allocation annually based on the consumer price index in an effort to inflation-proof the education funding formula annually. Again, Gara said, the bill was filed in 2003 and needs to be amended to reflect current year data.

House Bill 265, sponsored by Rep. Dan Ogg, R-Kodiak, provides a 2 percent increase to the funding formula annually. Ogg said that while 2 percent may not meet the rate of inflation annually, the long-term commitment to increasing education funding would allow school districts to plan more effectively for coming years.

House Bill 361, sponsored by Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, would set up a $35 million grant program to be distributed to schools according to the funding formula for use exclusively in classroom instruction.

Croft said the bill is an attempt to provide another option for increases to education funding that may be more palatable in the political arena.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, also noted that Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, plans to introduce a bill in the Senate that would set fiscal year 2005 funding at $4,500 per student, an amount some administrators in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District asked for earlier this year.

The school district has long been struggling to make ends meet and pushing for more funding from the state.

About 11 residents from the area -- including the district's chief financial officer Melody Douglas, school board member Margaret Gilman and a handful of teachers, parents and students -- listened in on the committee's discussion via teleconference at the Legislative Information Office in Kenai and weighed in on the bills.

Douglas told legislators that the Kenai Peninsula has been at the forefront of funding issues for years, serving as a proverbial canary in the coal mine. She said the canary is lying on the ground.

She said the district is well beyond the cuts other districts are proposing this year, having laid off 56 teachers last year and increased class sizes. She said the local school board is committed to preserving teachers, but balancing the budget only in other areas would require eliminating all supply and repair money, an option that is "totally unpalatable," she said.

And, she said, the threats to the education system are having a widespread effect on the peninsula economy.

"If you do not have a viable education system and people get the perspective that things are so dire, even the pristine beauty of this place is not going to be enough to hold people here," she said.

Douglas told the legislators that the district needs a base student allocation of $4,570 per student -- up from the current $4,010 -- to hold status quo teaching staff and program offerings.

Gilman agreed. But, she said, she doesn't believe status quo is enough.

"When I hear the term 'held harmless,' it makes my blood pressure shoot up," she said. She explained that the educational offerings in the district now are far less than those she enjoyed as a student in Kenai in the '70s and early '80s.

She also told legislators that community members are doing everything they can to help the situation. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has funded schools at the maximum amount allowed by law for at least 10 years, and voters will decide next month whether the borough should set aside additional money to fund cocurricular activities for students outside the regular school appropriations.

Peninsula residents weren't alone in their concerns about education funding.

School officials and parents from all over the state testified before the subcommittee, sharing the woes their respective districts are experiencing.

Anchorage, for example, is facing a $25.2 million shortfall in its 2005 budget, about $10 million of which is due to employer increases in the Public Employees' Retire-ment System and Teachers' Retire-ment System.

Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau said the district would need a nearly $400 increase in the base student allocation to be held harmless in the coming year.

Dave Jones, the director of finance for the Kodiak Island Borough School District, said his district is about $2.47 million short for the 2005 school year, and would need an increase of at least $161 per student just to keep up with increases in employee retirement funds.

Bob Doyle, the chief school administrator in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, said his district needs a $400 increase per student to make ends meet next year, but anticipates even more trouble in 2006.

Legislators on the subcommittee said they understand the problems faced by school districts around the state, and many of the bills reflected that understanding.

However, they pointed out that it still is early in the session, and education funding depends on both the state budget and the opinions of the Legislature at large.

The subcommittee will be responsible for sifting through education funding bills to pass on to the House Special Education Com-mittee, which then submits them to the House for passage. House bills also must be passed by the Senate and signed by the governor to be enacted.

That's a long process, said Gara, and one that requires buy-in from a lot of people.

He encouraged school officials, parents and interested community members to continue weighing in on matters by attending teleconferenced committee meetings at area LIOs. The next meeting of the education funding subcommittee will be at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

He also asked constituents to contact their respective legislators regarding their concerns.

"There are only three legislators in the room right now, and the point is made pretty crystal clear to us," he said.

"I urge anyone to send a note to their legislators including the base student allocation needed to be held harmless. Other legislators need to hear directly from you."



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