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Ala. Governor's Aid Plan Seeks More Flexibility

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Alabama's financially strapped schools would receive little new money in the coming fiscal year under a $2.2 billion funding proposal from Gov. Fob James Jr., but they would have more flexibility in how they spend their state aid.

The state's basic-funding formula would be rewritten to shift more money to property-poor districts under the finance plan, unveiled last week as the legislature opened its annual session. But it would guarantee districts as much basic aid for each of the next four years as they received this year, so poorer districts would see only relatively small increases in state aid in the near future.

Alabama officials are under a state court order to improve schools and make the funding system more equitable. Earlier this month, the state board of education formally adopted Mr. James's funding plan--which was drafted in consultation with state education department officials--to meet a deadline for complying with the court's 1993 remedy order.

Last week, Mr. James, a Republican who defeated Democratic Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. in November, delivered a feisty State of the State address in which he sharply criticized Eugene W. Reese, the judge who declared the school system unconstitutional.

In February, Mr. James and Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked the state supreme court to throw out Judge Reese's rulings, which the court refused to do. (See Education Week, 4/19/95.)

Local Control

Under Mr. James's school-funding plan, K-12 education would receive about $100 million more than the $2.1 billion it got this year. But observers said that this actually amounts to level funding, because schools received a one-time windfall from a state insurance fund this year.

But the Governor's plan would deliver state aid in lump-sum payments to districts, giving them greater local control over the money. In the past, some aid was distributed through a formula, while lawmakers earmarked other funds for specific purposes--sometimes granting money for a specific project to a district with pull in the capital.

Under the new plan, districts could divide their grants among four categories of spending: current expenses, classroom materials and professional development, salaries, and employee benefits.

Separate from the aid formula, the plan would also provide $133 million to fully pay districts' transportation costs.

The formula aims to promote equity by eliminating legislators' earmarking authority and by stopping the practice of the state's paying the benefits of extra teachers who were hired out of a property-wealthy district's local taxes.

In addition, the amount of aid each district would be entitled to under the formula--which is based on enrollment, adjusted somewhat for special-education costs and the type of schools a district has--would be reduced by the amount it could raise with a certain level of property tax.

Districts would be required to levy at least 10 mills of local property tax, as they are now. In the first year, the deduction would be equal to what a district can raise with 5 mills of tax, and it would rise by the third year to what they could generate from 10 mills.

However, because districts would be guaranteed 1995 funding levels for four years, the impact of this change would not be felt immediately.

The plan also sets aside some money--$29.5 million in the next fiscal year--for capital purchases, which would be allocated under a formula that gives more aid to property-poor districts.

Bond Issue Sought

The Governor also proposed a separate, $150 million bond issue for capital improvements to K-12 facilities to address 1,641 health and safety problems a team of inspectors recently found. It has been a decade since the last such bond issue. (See Education Week, 3/22/95.)

And Mr. James's education proposal also includes measures intended to hold school administrators accountable for finances and student achievement.

Sandra Sims-de Graffenried, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, said the prospect of more local control for districts was exciting, but she said the real test will come in whether the legislature will give up "micromanaging" school funds.

"They can go back and undermine the entire concept," she said.

In his address, Mr. James also said he would send an executive order to districts "confirming the First Amendment right to pray in school," and ask Republican leaders in Congress to pass a resolution "confirming First Amendment rights to pray in the public schools of America." But a spokeswoman said that Mr. James did not intend to formally challenge the U.S. Supreme Court's ban on state-sponsored prayer in public schools.

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