Cuts to pupil transportation, grants, debt reimbursement are cuts to education

Campaign rhetoric vs. fiscal realities

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003

No one understands better than school administrators school superintendents, business officials and principals how difficult it is to balance a budget, and we admire Gov. Frank Murkowski for his courage to propose drastic reductions in state spending.

We, too, have experienced the firestorm created by laying unpopular reductions on the table that no one likes, or will support.

And so, the dialogue begins.

For a number of reasons, this is not the time to reduce state spending for school districts. Fully funding the school foundation program is laudable. But let there be no mistake reductions to pupil transportation, to the Learning Opportunity Grants (LOGS), to the debt reimbursement program and to Community Schools are reductions to schools.

They translate into operating budget reductions, as districts must absorb these costs into their local spending plans or eliminate the programs. Imagine if your local school district decided to stop transporting students to school or charged for bus transportation!

Learning Opportunity Grants help schools implement the necessary reforms required to meet higher standards of student achievement. And they are not sufficient to do the job at their present value.

The federal No Child Left Behind act and the state's Quality Schools Initiative both require the infusion of new dollars to be successfully implemented. Clearly, it is not possible to hold a struggling school accountable by strangling it with insufficient funding to accomplish the changes needed.

Our education community rallied last fall to inform voters of the importance of taking care of the huge backlog of school construction and major maintenance needs. Voters responded with a rousing 2-to-1 approval of the plan advanced by the previous Legislature.

To renege on that deal by reducing the percentage of state reimbursement, after some communities have bonded and others are about to consider it, is to tell voters "rules change when convenient." Such a message will surely have a chilling effect at the polls.

For municipalities and boroughs struggling to provide the requested local contribution to schools, the reduction to municipal assistance and revenue sharing will be an extra burden on their budgets. That burden may be passed to the school districts in the form of lower contributions.

The combined total of the governor's proposed reductions to K-12 education is in the neighborhood of $27 million statewide.

At a time when school districts have experienced declining enrollment, rising fixed costs and teacher shortages, these cuts to revenue will affect every local school. Class sizes may increase, support programs may disappear, student activities fees may escalate, schools may close. The effect will no longer be in someone else's back yard, but will be in your own.

In the end, we observe that protecting education funding is repeatedly used to gain votes; yes, it is even used to get elected. In return, we expect education to be granted the support assured during election campaigns.

After all, the education of Alaska's children is a constitutional mandate and we call on our elected officials to honor that responsibility, not just in name, but in sufficiency.

Mary A. Francis is the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, which represents about 500 school superintendents, principals and school business officials. Francis, who recently retired as superintendent of the Petersburg School District, has spent 21 years as a school administrator.

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