Governor proposes school funding cuts

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

JUNEAU Gov. Frank Murkowski is proposing to cut spending on schools next year by nearly $28 million, partly by giving them less help busing their students and repaying their bond debt.

But the idea is getting a cool reception in the Legislature.

Democrats, who are in the minority, are denouncing it as a broken promise by the Republican governor, who said in his campaign last fall he would fully fund education.

And some majority Republican budget-writers say they aren't likely to support a proposal that takes money from schools.

It wouldn't have been my first plan,'' said Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks. Wilken is co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which crafts the Senate's version of the state budget.

Wilken said he will be trying to convince his colleagues to spend more, not less, on schools.

Students face new requirements to pass a high school graduation test, starting next year, and schools must meet new federal and state accountability standards, Wilken said.

We are asking a lot of our education system today,'' he said. How can we pull back funding when we're asking for this higher level of accountability?''

House Finance Co-Chairman John Harris, R-Valdez, was careful to note budget discussions have just begun, but said it would be hard for him to support anything that would give schools less money.

I think reducing the cost of pupil transportation is a direct hit to local schools, so I think that has to be evaluated. I'm not real excited about that,'' Harris said.

Murkowski has proposed reducing the amount the state reimburses districts for pupil transportation by $10.7 million, reducing certain grants by $10 million, cutting school debt reimbursement by $6.6 million and eliminating the community schools program for a savings of $500,000.

I think we all share in the responsibility to get our fiscal house in order and find a way to live within our means,'' Murkowski said Wednesday in presenting his budget to a joint session of the Legislature.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, complained Thursday that Murkowski had promised during the campaign he would support full and equitable funding for schools.

The governor's rhetoric hasn't matched the budget,'' Elton said.

The governor's spokesperson, John Manly, said when the governor spoke about fully funding education, he assumes Murkowski was talking about the foundation formula.

That's the main state formula for distributing dollars to schools based on their enrollment and other factors.

I believe we have proposed to fund the formula 100 percent of what it was funded at last year,'' Manly said.

The governor's budget proposes to keep the per-pupil amount that goes through the foundation formula the same in the coming budget, although actual foundation spending will be about $4 million less, partly because of lower enrollment.

But Association of Alaska School Boards Executive Director Carl Rose said cutting transportation, debt reimbursement and grants will hurt schools, even if the foundation formula isn't cut.

Regardless of where you take the money from, it still comes out of the same pot,'' Rose said.

In addition to the other proposed cuts, Rose said the administration's plan to close the state correspondence school, Alyeska Central School, will hurt many school districts who use it to provide summer school to students.

Wilken said it is too soon to predict the final outcome of the governor's proposals.

I think what he's done is he's just set everything on the table and said, We've done our best. What do you folks want to do? What is your tolerance for pain?''' Wilken said.

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