School officials turn to Legislature to save stimulus funds

March 19, 2009 

Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau reacts to news that Gov. Palin is not planning to accept all of the federal stimulus money available for education. "Yeah, I'm really disappointed," she said.

FRAN DURNER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Alaska superintendents are already lobbying legislators to reverse Gov. Sarah Palin's decision to reject $172 million for Alaska schools.

Their reactions to Palin's decision have ranged from dismay to panic, superintendents said Thursday.

Much of the stimulus package money for education -- about $74 million -- was designated for poor schools and special-needs kids. It was to be spent over the next two academic years.

Most of the other money is meant to help prevent cuts to classrooms, staff and critical services.

"This is the kids' money, not our money," said Lower Yukon superintendent John Lamont.

Palin's team warned the cash could balloon budgets and unintentionally inflate future state spending.

Many of the state's 53 superintendents are drafting a joint letter to the Legislature, asking lawmakers to override Palin and accept the money, Lamont said.

"Even if it was a two-year package, our students are in dire need," he said.

Lamont's district, which is spread over 22,000 square miles in Western Alaska, has a dropout rate that is more than twice the national average. He had planned to use the $2.2 million he thought his district was getting to hire math and reading specialists.

The news may have come as more of a surprise because the state Department of Education held a teleconference with superintendents this week about the stimulus funding. Superintendents were given estimates of how much they would be receiving, for at least some portions of the money. They were told the governor had some reservations about the money and didn't want frivolous spending, but not that Palin might turn away all the school money, said Kenai Peninsula Borough Schools assistant superintendent Steve Atwater.

Nancy Wagner, superintendent of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, said the federal money could pay for things the district will eventually have to spend money on anyway, like training or materials.

"We wouldn't want to commit to something that we know we couldn't sustain ... it would free up some funding for us to use later," she said.

$26 MILLION FOR ANCHORAGE

Palin budget director Karen Rehfeld defended the governor's announcement. "I don't think the implication is that they would waste the money," she said. The governor's concern, Rehfeld said, is that $172 million is a big number and when the money dries up in two years, there could be an outcry and expectation for the state to replace it.

"We've seen that in many programs, that when federal funds go away, the tendency is for the state to come in and try to backfill and keep things going -- and that's the concern," she said. "Particularly when we look at the (state) revenue picture.

Anchorage School Superintendent Carol Comeau heard the news when a frenzy of calls between superintendents began ringing across the state early this afternoon.

"I was very surprised and disappointed," she said.

Anchorage schools were slated to get at least $26 million for special education and Title One schools, which are in the city's poorest neighborhoods. One idea was to use some of the money to expand pre-kindergarten to more low-income children, Comeau said.

While the impact on the Anchorage School District, which has an annual budget of around $800 million, may be small, the effect on smaller school districts in rural Alaska will be more significant, she said. "With the number of rural districts struggling, to take this away from them, it's just not fair."

Aleutians East superintendent Phil Knight hopes Palin reconsiders.

Knight's district of six schools, all of which are accessible only by boat or plane, has 250 kids. He had planned to use his district's slated $84,000 to keep open smaller schools threatened with closure next year.

Northwest Arctic Borough superintendent Norman Eck reacted to the news in an e-mail: "I am stunned," he wrote.

His district is under intervention by the state Department of Education because of poor test scores year after year. He said he had planned to use his $1.2 million for education materials the district otherwise could not afford. High electricity and fuel costs hit his budget hard this year, and ended up being taken from money otherwise meant for kids in classrooms.

"We will need our Legislature to take a strong stand and pass the emergency resolution to receive this money on behalf of Alaska's children," Eck wrote.

BLEAK IN MAT-SU

Mat-Su school officials considered the stimulus money the one bright spot in an otherwise potentially bleak year for funding, Mat-Su School Board President Jim Colver said.

The board had hoped to use it to save teaching positions.

"I was optimistic that this is how we were going to get through this budget year. So this has just kind of tipped my boat over right now," Colver said.

The district had hoped to be able to tap about $10 million, although the exact amount had not been officially determined, said John Weetman, the district's assistant superintendent of administration.

The governor lives in Mat-Su with her family part of the year. Her children attend school in the district.

"I think she's getting some bad advice. I would hope she would rethink her position," he said.

Colver said the district could end up eliminating as many as 60 of its 1,200 teaching positions next year if they don't get to keep the money.

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