JUNEAU (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a bill on Friday to increase the state's education funding formula by $32 million and said schools will largely be spared from his veto pen.
While the governor contemplates $135 million in cuts to balance the fiscal 2004 budget, educators breathed a little easier.
With state education officials looking on, Murkowski signed into law a bill to raise the state's foundation formula by $159 per student, a 3.9 percent increase.
''It's the largest single increase in over a decade (and) it clearly demonstrates our commitment to focus on education in the classroom,'' Murkowski said.
The foundation formula is the main funding stream for schools and is anticipated to cost the state more than $701.3 million in the fiscal year that begins begins July 1.
Together with an increase in debt reimbursement for school construction projects and $53.9 million for school transportation costs ''it provides a stable funding for schools well into the future,'' Murkowski said.
Education officials were relieved by Murkowski's support for the bill, but said they will have to endure other cuts.
''The whole story is, it's not a major increase in education funding,'' said Richard Kronberg, president of the NEA-Alaska. ''It's a mixed bag.''
Under provisions of the law, pupil transportation spending will remain the same but the money will be doled out under a formula that encourages districts to cut their rising costs.
But Murkowski said ''full funding comes with full accountability'' and he pledged to continue to search for economies in state spending on education.
In a letter to the superintendents of Alaska's 53 school districts, he cited disparities in benchmark tests and the need to get more dollars into the classroom.
''The Murkowski administration pledges to continue to make financial resources available, but we need to hold recipients of these resources accountable for excellent educational results,'' Murkowski said in the letter.
Alaska schools fared well this year when compared to deep cuts in other areas of state government. But education didn't emerge unscathed.
Murkowski had proposed cutting nearly $28 million from education during his March budget address. While the GOP-controlled Legislature signed off on some of his proposals, it balked on the deepest cuts.
Lawmakers took $30 million from learning opportunity grants to schools and put it into the foundation formula. They also funded pupil transportation at current levels, rejecting Murkowski's plan to reduce it by 20 percent.
But lawmakers cut $500,000 from community schools, eliminated the state's summer correspondence school program and funding for two-year Kindergarten.
''Even in it's current form (state spending on education) doesn't meet our needs,'' said Carl Rose, executive director for the Association of Alaska School Boards. ''But there is an entire state that is in fiscal difficulty.''
Alaska currently has a chronic budget shortfall and a $1.9 billion reserve account which is expected to be drained in three years.
In an effort to extend the life of the state's reserve account and preserve Alaska's high bond rating, Murkowski has vowed to cut millions from the budget.
He plans to draw no more than $400 million from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve, which is used nearly annually to balance state spending.
The Legislature cut millions from state spending before adjourning May 21, but $135 million still needs to be eliminated to meet the state's budget goals, Murkowski said.
Among the programs that could be cut or reduced are $22 million in municipal revenue sharing assistance and $44 million used to fund longevity bonuses to eligible seniors.
Murkowski said he plans to roll out many of his cuts next week, but he gave no indication of what they will be. He said there will not be any direct cuts to education, but indicated that schools could be affected by other cuts in the offing.
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