Knowles, Senate Finance differ on school funding approaches

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- As Gov. Tony Knowles was calling on the Legislature to spend more money on schools, two floors up the Senate Finance Committee was debating a bill that would do that -- at least for most schools.

But it's a bill Knowles would probably veto if it reaches his desk.

Knowles called a news conference Monday to try to draw attention once again to his education funding task force's proposal to add $45 million to schools this year to help students reach state standards and pass a high school graduation exam.

''I believe that is a modest investment,'' Knowles said.

In addition to the money currently called for in the state school funding formula, the House provided $6.2 million in its budget for grants to school districts and the Senate provided $12.4 million. That's a start, Knowles said, but legislators need to do more.

Some members of the Senate Finance Committee agree. But their approach differs from Knowles' approach.

Senate Bill 174, introduced by the committee, would pump more money into most Alaska schools by cutting off state funding to four communities with the highest per-student assessed property value -- the North Slope Borough, Valdez, Skagway and Unalaska.

It does this by changing a provision in the school funding formula. Under the change, the four districts would be required to raise all of their own basic school funds through local taxes because their property tax bases are so rich. That means the state would no longer give them any education money.

The North Slope would lose about $9.8 million, Valdez would lose $1.3 million and Unalaska and Skagway would lose about $500,000 each, said Eddie Jeans, school finance manager for the Education Department.

That money would be plowed into the state's school funding formula, raising the per-pupil allocation by $36 from $3,940 to $3,976.

Sen. Donald Olson, D-Nome, fiercely opposes the bill.

He said the North Slope Borough contributes a fair amount to its schools and taking state funding away will hurt students who are struggling more than in some urban districts to pass an upcoming high school exit exam.

''All I hear about is the target is the North Slope Borough. Let's get them, let's get them. That's the sentiment I hear,'' Olson said.

Senate Finance Co-Chairman Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said the bill is just an attempt to spread the burden for education more fairly among all communities of the state.

''They don't pay their fair share, and the rest of us pay their fair share and more,'' Kelly said.

If the bill eventually passes the Senate, it may run into trouble in the House.

''I don't know how the House would view it,'' said House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage. ''While philosophically I agree with that position, we generally on the House side have been slow to take money from one entity and give it to another.''

That's not a good way to resolve conflicts, Mulder said.

Knowles said he would ''absolutely not'' support an approach that eliminates state education funding to parts of the state.

''To even imagine ... that we'd cut out one of the boroughs of this state is unacceptable and anti-education in a fundamental way,'' Knowles said.

Several other bills could be used to boost education funding if legislators decide to move them.

Sen. Gary Wilken, R-Fairbanks, and Rep. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, both introduced bills to bump the base student allocation by $145 to $4085 per student.

Anchorage Democrats Sen. Bettye Davis and Rep. Gretchen Guess introduced bills that would automatically adjust the funding formula for inflation.

Mulder wouldn't rule out passage of one of those bills, but said he's reluctant to boost the funding formula for education without some assurance that will produce better results in student performance.

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