Disputed Education Budget to be Hot Topic When Lawmakers Return from Break

When lawmakers return to Montgomery next Tuesday, following their annual spring holiday, all eyes are expected to turn to the state budgets, and nobody is looking forward to it.

Since so few options exist, there is little room for discussion about which parts of the state General Fund budget will suffer severe cuts. But some alternatives do exist for how the painful cuts required in the education budget might be administered, and key decision makers, including the governor and state school superintendent, are at odds about which to use.

The legislative committee schedule for next week shows that joint House and Senate General Fund Budget Hearings are scheduled for Wednesday, March 23, from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. But, so far, no meetings related to the Education Trust Fund are scheduled next week, indicating that legislators will likely take up the education budget during the week of March 28.

Both state budgets pose dramatic problems for lawmakers who are reluctantly facing the fact that “you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip,” especially in a year when there is no one-time money miracle on the horizon. Instead, lawmakers now have to figure out how to plug the holes left from other one-time infusions that have run dry. That dilemma, combined with weak revenues resulting from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, means a double-whammy for those charged with crafting balanced state budgets.

For his part, Gov. Robert Bentley has presented a General Fund budget that would likely mean significant layoffs at many of Alabama’s non-education state agencies, and an education budget that would maintain the number of state-funded teachers and other K-12 public school employees but create serious funding challenges for other key parts of school budgets.

State Superintendent Joe Morton says although the governor has fully funded teaching positions, his proposed 2012 K-12 education budget would force at least 49 of the state’s 132 school districts into operating deficits by the end of FY 2012, and leave another 40 systems with less than one month’s operating balance remaining by that time, the superintendent said.

“Alabama cannot operate public education with 37% of its school systems insolvent,” Morton told superintendents in a March 9 memorandum outlining his perspective on Gov. Bentley’s proposed budget and it’s potential system-by-system budget impact.

In the memo, Morton told superintendents that Gov. Bentley’s proposed budget underfunds certain operational expenses including utilities, operations and support workers and expands the current underfunding of transportation. He has said repeatedly that the governor’s transportation allocation falls short of meeting the cost of bus driver salaries and makes it impossible for local systems to pay for fuel and maintenance.

As an alternative, Morton recommends a one-time reduction in teaching positions, which he says would be absorbed through normal retirements and other attrition measures – without impacting any current teachers, along with a corresponding reduction of two professional development days for teachers and support workers. Together, Morton’s recommendations would save $119 million that could be divided among transportation and the funding category called “other current expenses,” which includes utilities, support personnel and other operational spending. Those measures would make it possible, Morton told superintendents, “for you to keep school doors open and transport students safely.”

But Gov. Bentley disagrees with the superintendent’s plan and says state leaders won’t let school systems fail. “We’re expecting local school boards to look to see where they have fat, whether it’s in administration or wherever it is, and we’re expecting them to make some decisions also, and we’re giving them the flexibility to do that,” the governor told the Birmingham News last week.

With statewide education spending reduced by $1.4 billion over the past three years, Morton counters that the combined impact of 11% proration in 2009, 7.5 percent in 2010, and another 3% in 2011 has left local school systems with little or no room to cut, regardless of flexibility. Notably, proration slices into every part of school budgets except funding for salaries and benefits, which is exempt from the mid-year cuts. As a result, and with considerable help from federal stimulus monies, education job cuts have so far been avoided while other school expenses have been hard hit.

“We have really hit a funding crisis in this state,” Morton told the Birmingham News. “It’s just an absolute fact that if the governor’s budget passes, we will have the same number of days and the same number of teachers going to school, but no way to get students there.”

State Finance Director David Perry said the overall reduction in allocations Morton cites are due to the state’s inability to fully replace some $179 million in lost federal stimulus funds. Also in comments to the Birmingham News, Perry said, “The governor can’t replace all the federal stimulus funds, but he has gone out of his way and stuck his neck out to find an additional $120 million by cutting other areas of the education budget.”.

Still, Morton maintains that local school systems are only limping along after three straight years of budget proration and are rapidly running out of avenues to survive continued cuts.

In his letter to the superintendents, Morton urged them to contact their House and Senate members and ask them to support his two-pronged recommendation “so you
will have enough OCE and Transportation funding to actually have school for students.”

But school superintendents and others who support Morton’s recommendations won’t be the only ones weighing in with their legislators. Lawmakers will likely also be hearing from the leaders and members of the Alabama Education Association, which supports Gov. Bentley’s budget proposal.

“Basically what he’s (Morton) suggesting is that teachers ought to give up $500 each and teach in larger classes in order to fund the budget,” AEA Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert told the Birmingham News. “The problem I have is that nobody else is being expected to do that.”

The coming weeks will be challenging for legislators as they try to finalize a budget in what seems to be a no-win situation. It looks like the real challenge is being placed on superintendents and school boards as they struggle not only to remain solvent, but to educate their students well during this very challenging economic time.

To read more in The Birmingham News click here.