State Education Board approves district spending waivers

Posted: Thursday, October 26, 2000

FAIRBANKS(AP) -- The state Board of Education has approved budget waivers for 24 school districts that anticipate spending less than 70 percent of their budgets on instruction this school year.

Board President Susan Stitham said Tuesday the board at a weekend meeting approved waivers for all districts that applied.

''We didn't have any reservations about approving any of them,'' she said.

The requirement to spend a certain percentage of a district's budget on student instruction has been phased in over three years. State law required 60 percent two years ago, 65 percent last year, and 70 percent this year.

''(The law) is in place to encourage schools to get more money to the classrooms, to the instructional component,'' said state Department of Education and Early Development spokesman Harry Gamble. ''I think it is safe to say that districts are being more careful about directing funds into the classroom.''

The law says the Department of Education can reduce state aid to districts that do not show compelling reasons for spending less on instruction than the law requires.

Stitham said that after three years under the law, districts' accounting systems are consistent statewide, allowing a clearer picture of how education dollars are being spent.

She said the numbers show that some districts will not be able to spend 70 percent of their budget on instruction.

Yukon Flats School District Superintendent Carla Sheive said her district will never meet the mandate.

''Our maintenance and operations budget runs right at 30 percent,'' she said, and that does not include central office staff.

Electricity and heating oil are extremely expensive in the rural communities her district serves, Sheive said. In one village the district pays $3.55 per gallon of heating oil.

The district pays 65 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity at one of its schools, Sheive said, compared with between 5 and 9 cents in Fairbanks.

High energy costs are compounded by the poor condition of some schools. Daylight can be seen through cracks in the walls at the Arctic Village School, Sheive said.

The school has been on the state's capital priority list for several years, she said, but has received no funding. However, she is required to keep track of all the maintenance the district does on each of its building, which drives up clerical costs. She also must spend money every year to keep the school on the state capital improvement list.

''Every time we turn around they are throwing at us unfunded mandates,'' she said. ''You keep raising the hoop and lighting it on fire and making it smaller.''

Karen Dempster, superintendent of the Yukon Koyukuk School District, said the instruction percentage turned into the state does not paint an accurate picture of dollars spent on instruction. The district receives substantial grant money for instruction, Dempster said, but it's not counted toward the 70 percent requirement.

''Even though we are already meeting the intent of the legislation, we are not counted as meeting the intent,'' she said.

The waiver process has revealed some unintended consequences of the law, Stitham said, such as districts cutting school activities to keep non-instructional spending within the cap.

''Clearly one of the goals was to make sure that as much as possible of the public money is going to benefit the students directly,'' she said. ''We don't want districts to curtail things that are benefits to students in order to meet an artificial line.''

Stitham said the state board will forward a list of these consequences to the Legislature, though it is not ready to suggest any changes to the law.

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