JUNEAU, Alaska - Gov. Sean Parnell on Wednesday proposed $30.3 million in one-time funding to help school districts with energy and student transportation costs.
The president of a major Alaska teachers' union said the money, while appreciated, doesn't go far enough in addressing the funding challenges facing state schools.
Parnell has resisted automatic budget increases - the likes of which have been proposed by the Senate - to help schools keep pace with costs, saying Alaskans deserve a public conversation about how the money is being spent. But Parnell has said he'd be willing to support funding for specific, proven needs, and in a statement Wednesday, he said he's been persuaded, through testimony in legislative hearings, that there is a need for more money for energy and busing costs.
Parnell's office said energy costs paid by Alaska school districts are expected to rise by $20 million between last year and the upcoming fiscal year. His o ffice also cited information from districts, indicating that student transportation contracts would increase by more than $10 million in the next school year, and this would eat into classroom dollars without additional aid.
Parnell is seeking the funding as an amendment to the state operating budget, which the House Finance Committee is trying to wrap up by next week so it can be voted on and sent to the Senate. The statutory deadline for submitting budget amendments has passed, but Parnell's spokeswoman said amendments are occasionally submitted after that date for consideration.
The Senate has already passed SB171, which would boost funding through what's known as the base student allocation by $30.6 million in the first of three years of automatic increases; Sen. Kevin Meyer said that would help address cost of living increases.
A bill that would change student transportation funding also is pending before the Senate Finance Committee. Meyer, co-chair of the Se nate Education Committee, said that bill calls for about $10 million for increased transportation costs next year and another $8 million for the current budget year.
"We're all kind of heading in same direction," Meyer, R-Anchorage, said, adding that he had expected the Senate also would try to address energy costs. He noted there's a little more than a month left in session. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 15.
Sen. Joe Thomas, Meyer's Education co-chair, said he welcomed Parnell's commitment to adequate education funding but he said a one-time appropriation is a short term approach.
"Our schools, students and local taxpayers need a long-term commitment from the state so they can provide the best education possible for our children," Thomas, D-Fairbanks, said in a statement.
House Speaker Mike Chenault this week said his members are concerned about education funding but a decision hasn't been made on how best to tackle the issue. He noted there are a number of different facets to look at, such as energy costs, the base student allocation, transportation and employee health care costs.
Some Republican House members have joined the governor in saying they want better accountability for how any additional money is being spent.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said Parnell's plan "just gets schools to where they were last year. So it remains flat funding and falls behind inflation." He compared it to giving an employee a bonus instead of a raise every year.
Barb Angaiak, president of NEA-Alaska, said it's not just energy and transportation costs that are going up. Costs, such as those associated with having highly skilled personnel in schools, also can't be ignored, she said.
"If we are expecting people to do more with less, that's a song that has been sung and sung and sung. And it is not going to improve what we're doing in our schools at all," she said, noting there will be an impact if teachers or other staff are cut and classroom sizes grow.
While one-time money would help, "it's one time money, and we don't have the luxury of having children wait for their education while we figure out how to properly fund our schools," she said.