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Parnell bill would nudge up state payments to local school districts

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The state's payments to school districts for classroom instruction would increase a modest 1.5 percent in the education bill Gov. Sean Parnell submitted to the Legislature Friday.

The bill, the main component of Parnell's education initiative, would raise the base student allocation -- the per pupil allowance to each district -- for the first time since 2011. But the rise would fall far short of the amount of money the districts have lost to inflation over that time.

For the year beginning July 1 -- the state's 2015 budget year -- the per pupil allocation would go from the current $5,680 for each student to $5,765. It would rise another 1 percent in each of the next two years.

The Parnell administration said the total statewide increase in 2015 would be $21 million, with about $6.3 million earmarked for Anchorage and $2.5 million for Mat-Su schools. In 2016 and 2017, the state projected the increase each year would add an additional $4.3 million to the Anchorage School District and $1.7 million to Mat-Su schools.

The Anchorage School District said the 2014 school year budget gap would be $23 million. The district announced earlier this week it would close the gap by eliminating 219 positions, including 159 classroom teachers.

"It's criminal, in my opinion," said Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat who once served on the school board and is now a member of the House Education Committee, the first stop for Parnell's bill.

While Drummond said she appreciated Parnell's focus on education this year, the money for schools in the base student allocation wasn't nearly enough.

Between 2011 and 2013, inflation in Anchorage increased costs about 5.5 percent, according to state labor department statistics. Drummond said the BSA would have to jump $402 this year alone to make up for losses to inflation. Instead, the actual $201 increase will be parceled out over the next three years, allowing inflation to again eat into its value.

A spokeswoman for the school district, Heather Roach, said in an email, "Our initial review of the governor's bill is that it would provide Anchorage with $6.348 million in state funding and allow the Assembly to raise local municipal taxes another $1.449 million, for a total of $7.797 million -- which amounts to about one-third of next year's projected budget shortfall of $23 million."

"Totally inadequate, totally inadequate," Sen. Berta Gardner said of the BSA boost. Gardner, a Democrat and the only Anchorage legislator on the Senate Education Committee, said she already supports some of the policy changes in Parnell's bill and is intrigued by others, but added: "I'm hostile on the proposal for the BSA increases -- it's not even in the game."

Ron Fuhrer, president of the statewide teachers union, NEA-Alaska, said the money is far short of what would be required to forestall layoffs in school districts around the state.

"Our schools are in dire straits as it is, and this money is not going to keep those cuts from happening," Fuhrer said.

In transmitting the bill to both houses of the Legislature Friday, Parnell said the BSA isn't the only source of state money for education. Juneau already sends millions of dollars to the districts for other purposes, such as energy costs, and will continue to do so, he said.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Parnell first indicated he would end his longstanding opposition to increasing the BSA, but only on condition that other reforms be passed.

Those reforms were part of the 18-page bill. Parnell has already floated most of the ideas over the past weeks, and some, like elimination of the high school exit exam, are already progressing in stand-alone legislation. In his speech and in a news conference Thursday, he didn't say which reforms were must-haves, nor did he say what he would do if the Legislature raised the BSA above his proposal.

Parnell's initiative addresses complaints by parents of children in public charter schools that their schools are being starved. The bill would direct districts to help out more with the physical facilities of charter schools, which are often in buildings rented by parents. The bill would mandate procedures for setting up charter schools, and give parents the opportunity to appeal to the state education commissioner if the local school board rejects a school

The bill beefs up public boarding schools and job training facilities, and gives tax credits to businesses for donations they make to build and maintain boarding school dorms and to provide scholarships for high school students enrolled in college-level courses. The administration said it couldn't estimate how much those credits would reduce the state treasury's tax collections.

Parnell submitted identical bills to the House and Senate, House Bill 278 and Senate Bill 139.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or (907) 500-7388.


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com
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