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Education bill moves to Senate floor, still without formula funding

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- The Senate Finance Committee revised the education bill again Saturday then sent it to the Senate floor, one of the last big pieces of legislation left to resolve before lawmakers can pack up and leave the Capitol.

There was not much new money for traditional schools in the final version of the bill beyond what was added Friday. Hope by parents that the senators would shift one-time funds into the long-term base student allocation were dashed as copies of the bill circulated around the finance committee room. The BSA, unchanged at $5,680 since 2011, will remain that way for the next three years under the bill.

Parents from Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, sitting in the front bench of the finance committee room, left quickly when the committee moved the bill shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday. They didn't wait for senators to sign the committee report, and they didn't immediately talk with reporters.

Though the finance committee wouldn't back down against the tough-willed and well organized parents, it tried to change the way people were thinking about the bill. Committee co-chairman Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the latest version took money earmarked for charter schools, residential schools and other special projects and added it to the $100 million originally in the bill. On Friday, the program money was deducted from the $100 million.

With all the money for education in the bill -- about $111 million -- it could be considered a raise in the BSA of more than $400, if calculated on a per-student basis, he said.

Parents had been demanding a BSA increase of $400 for 2015 and $125 in each of the next two years as a way to restore past teacher cuts and prevent new ones from happening.

"It just depends on how you want to manipulate the numbers," Meyer told the committee. "People are going to use the numbers however they want, but we feel it's pretty good funding of education."

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said people should also consider the $2 billion added in another bill to the teacher retirement system as a benefit to education -- though the state is obligated for those funds.

"It's going to be $111 million a year for the next three years, and $2 billion was just appropriated for the TRS," Dunleavy said. "The idea that the state is not funding public education can be laid to rest."

After regrouping, consulting other parents and school district officials in Anchorage and making the rounds of legislative offices, Alyse Galvin and Jessie Menkens were ready to answer the senators Saturday evening.

Galvin said the parents appreciated the additional money in the latest version of the bill, and they liked the assurances that the money would be there for three years.

But they said they were disappointed that the money wasn't made part of the BSA, making it part of the funding formula in the future, and that there wasn't enough to avoid cuts in Anchorage and especially to bring back teachers already laid off.

"We are appreciative of that small step but we've got a long way to go to provide the full stability that we need so that the cuts in the schools are not taking place," Galvin said. "You know our mantra has been BSA, 400-125-125. What we are looking at this, if you want to try to put it side by side, is 300-0-0."

Menkens said parents remain united, and they support education in the entire state, not just Anchorage. As advocates, some have been taking shifts in Juneau, flying on constituent fares and working the hallways and committee rooms before returning to Anchorage, to be replaced by others.

"The fact remains that the people have spoken," Menkens said. "We are seeing levels of civic engagement right now on this issue that are remarkable. And we know for a fact that our legislators are getting inundated with hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and emails, all asking for what -- an increase within the BSA, 400 plus 125 plus 125."

"We've gone to Republicans and Democrats alike and we said we'd sure like your hand in this," Galvin said. "Some of them feel like it's a difficult building right now -- they've said there's some leadership here that's making it very tough for them to support this right now."

The education bill will move to the Senate floor Sunday, and as such will become part of the overall adjournment strategy of the Legislature. Sunday is the 90th day of the session, the statutory limit, though the Alaska Constitution allows another 30 days.

Big bills are still looming: the operating and capital budgets, the gas line bill, education and others, as well as smaller bills that are pet projects of different members. The session already steamed passed the Friday night deadline set in January by Senate President Charlie Huggins, who wanted to be out before Easter Sunday.

Now sessions are planned by both House and Senate on Easter.

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

 


By RICHARD MAUER
rmauer@adn.com
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