JUNEAU -- Education leaders are satisfied with but not exuberant about a deal brokered during the legislative session to provide a $90.7-million increase in K-12 school funding next year.
School district leaders, teachers and union representatives made their presence known at committee hearings and in legislators' offices.
They wanted a multi-year increase of the "base student allocation" -- the formula that guarantees school districts a certain amount of cash for each student -- to be tied to the inflation rate.
The student allocation has remained unchanged for a few years. Critics say long-term planning has become impossible for districts while annual rounds of layoffs and program cuts have become inevitable.
Tim Parker is an English teacher at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks and a member of NEA Alaska board of directors. He visited Juneau during late March, along with dozens of other teachers brought to town by the NEA.
"I'm a classroom teacher, so I know when money actually makes it down to us," Parker said.
"The majority of funding ends up in the classroom, but the problem we've had is getting stability. You might get a great program going, but every year some of those programs that are really working disappear when a principal has to find something to cut."
Long before Parker arrived in Juneau, the Senate had agreed with the sentiment he and scores of others expressed.
SB171 passed the Senate in early February, by an 18-2 vote, and would have guaranteed incremental increases of the student allocation through 2014.
"We gave the House the option we liked best early in the session," said Senate Education co-Chair Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, as the Legislature was adjourning. "The evidence was convincing, but the support just wasn't there."
Gov. Sean Parnell and House lawmakers balked at the plan because they believe the state should retain flexibility in the face of economic uncertainty. They pointed to the bottom line: Enacting the plan would cost the state $30.6 million next year, and that figure would increase to $95.5 million annually after three years, with no easy way out of that commitment should the economy worsen.
As it became clear attempts to increase the allocation were dead in the water, the Senate turned its focus to an alternative plan to guarantee funding increases for school transportation tied to the rate of inflation.
Parnell and House leaders consistently said that providing funding for costs proven to have increased was a more acceptable approach.
SB182, the Senate pupil transportation bill, was unanimously sent to the House in early April, and on to the Senate Finance Committee, where it underwent a series of amendments.
The bill that cleared the Senate would have guaranteed annual transportation funding increases based on the Consumer Price Index, but the House instead guaranteed an increase of 1.5 percent a year, slightly less than expected inflation.
A bill adding funding for vocational and technical instruction was also attached, and another change lowered the amount districts contribute to their schools.
The change in transportation funding met little opposition. Funding for vocational and technical instruction was met with open arms. But changing the "millage" drew criticism across party lines in the Senate, in large part because few thoroughly understand the process or its implications.
"Maybe it's great, but it bothers me that we didn't have more time to consider the impact," Meyer said. "I don't think anyone completely understands the change."
House Finance co-Chair Bill Thomas, a Haines Republican, said the idea is to get local districts to contribute more to their schools. He said the state has steadily assumed more of the costs as property around the state has lost value -- which lowered property tax collections -- and many cities and boroughs have not increased their contributions.
"The people that don't like that are probably at the bottom end, the districts who don't pay to the cap on what (districts) can contribute," Thomas said.
Jesse Kiehl is a member of the Juneau Assembly and an aide to Sen. Dennis Egan. Kiehl said the problem is that districts like Juneau will actually get punished for contributing the maximum amount allowed.
"It's great to see the Juneau School District will get $1.5 million," Kiehl said. "But the Legislature built the funding package in a way that districts with a track record of helping as much as we can, aren't allowed to do more."
If the difference between the best- and worst-funded schools is too great, the state stands to lose about $60 million in federal funds, Kiehl said.
The Senate agreed to the amendments, 11-9, and that version of the bill has been sent to Parnell to be signed into law.
Even without an increase of the allocation and questions around what the change to the millage rate will mean for some districts, education leaders welcomed the additional funding for next year.
"We're happy ... and we thank everyone who helped us get there," said Barb Angaiak, president of NEA of Alaska. "But we could have had a much better mechanism so that schools would have a reliable source of funding."
By AUSTIN BAIRD
Alaska Dispatch Publishing