A Senate panel is reviewing a bill that would make public education funding a separate appropriation from the rest of the state’s operating budget.

Under Senate Bill 131, Senate Education Committee Chair Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) wants the governor to submit a separate appropriation bill to fund public elementary-secondary schools before the fourth day of the regular legislative session.

In turn, the Legislature must pass an education budget by April 1.

The bill would help school districts hire and retain teachers because state funding would be approved sooner than the budget, said Stevens, the bill sponsor.

Under state law, school districts must submit funding requests to municipal governments by May 1.

But state budgets that contribute to the districts often get signed by a governor as late as June 30 -- the final day of the fiscal year.

Without knowing how much funding comes from the state, the school districts and municipal governments have difficulty preparing a financial plan, Stevens said.

This means districts often have to lay off – or pink slip – teachers until they know how many they can afford to employ.

It leads to an unwanted cycle of laying off teachers, then trying to re-hire them, making the layoff premature.

“I’ve been through that before as president of my school board (in Kodiak),” Stevens told KTVA on Wednesday before holding a second hearing this session on SB 131.

“I remember when it happened to us back in the '80s, we lost other teachers. They took other jobs, and you lose some of the best teachers that way,” he said. 

Alaska’s Education Commissioner Michael Johnson had a similar view of the timing.

“I think it is safe and truthful to say that an earlier certainly about a district’s budget helps them to be more efficient and effective in their recruiting,” Johnson said. 

The committee heard from school officials, including Monica Goyette, superintendent of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. Goyette, who called in from her office, threw her support behind the bill.

“Without knowing funding levels, it is difficult for our districts to adopt a staffing plan that aligns with the anticipated resources,” Goyette told the committee. “This delays hiring and retention of the non-tenured teachers in our districts.”

The state represents the district's largest funding source, but federal and local dollars also contribute to a complex formula that determines a district’s budget.

Stevens added that stripping education funding out of the budget could simplify budget negotiations.

“It does help because it takes that off the table,” Stevens said. “When we get to the end of a session, we are trying to figure out how to do all of the budgeting, If the school district budgets are in there, it adds more turmoil.”

Stevens chairs the Senate Education Committee, which has held two hearings so far, one each Jan. 17 and Wednesday. A third hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

The bill must clear this committee and the Senate Finance Committee, which Stevens is also a member of, before the entire Senate can vote.

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