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Published in Print: October 8, 2003, as As Promised, Cuts Follow Failed Alabama Tax Vote

As Promised, Cuts Follow Failed Alabama Tax Vote

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Less than a month after Alabama voters rejected a tax referendum that promised a windfall for education, Gov. Bob Riley has signed a new budget that cuts funding for textbooks, teacher professional development, and several other school-related items.

"I think it's going to mean a terrible blow to us for education," Robert Morton, an assistant state schools superintendent, said after the governor approved the measure last week.

The actual amount of K-12 spending in the Education Trust Fund—the main source of state aid for schools—rose slightly in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. It reached $2.91 billion, an increase of about $12 million, or less than one percent.

But the increase, and then some, will be taken up by an estimated $80 million in additional costs for teacher health insurance and retirement benefits, Mr. Morton said.

Spending on textbooks is dropping from about $42 million in fiscal 2003 down to $5.2 million in fiscal 2004. The state also zeroed out a $2.8 million line item for professional development, $6.2 million for school library enhancements, and $8.4 million for school technology.

In addition, the Alabama Department of Education saw a reduction of about $3.9 million, or 17 percent, in its operations and maintenance account, Mr. Morton said. Much of that will come from not filling 51 vacancies at the agency, according to Mr. Morton. The department has 293 employees.

"You've still got the same job to do," Mr. Morton added. "One area it really hurts us is ... our ability to go out to the school systems and help them when they have problems" with academic issues or financial management.

"It wasn't as bad as we feared," Susan Salter, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards, said of the budget legislation, "but there are some pretty devastating cuts in it."

The cut for textbooks will be especially painful, she said. Alabama has a seven-year cycle for textbooks, and each year the state typically replaces textbooks in one subject. For the current school year, that subject is mathematics. But the money provided will be enough to pay for workbooks for students in grades K-2 only, Ms. Salter said.

She noted that the state recently changed its math standards and adopted an updated set of math exams, and the old textbooks may not fully reflect those changes.

Sen. Henry "Hank" Sanders, a Democrat, said this year's was the most troubling of the nine education budgets he's overseen as the chairman of the Senate committee on education finance and taxation. "It was a bleak situation," he said.

"We have been promising educators that if they just worked hard and did even more with what they currently have, help would be on the way," Mr. Sanders said. "But instead of help, what we are coming with is cuts and more cuts."

A 'Symptom'?

The funding situation for education is dramatically different from what it would have been had Alabama voters supported the tax referendum put forward by the state's Republican governor. ("Alabama Voters Reject Gov. Riley's Tax Plan," Sept. 17, 2003.)

That package would have rewritten the tax code and eventually brought in an extra $1.2 billion each year, much of that slated for education. It also contained new accountability measures both for schools and state government.

But voters, by a resounding 68 percent to 32 percent, rejected the tax plan. Gov. Riley warned that without the additional revenue, the state, facing a funding shortfall of nearly $700 million, would be forced to slash government spending.

"These budgets were the best that could be passed under the circumstances," said David Azbell, the governor's spokesman. "We didn't have to lay off teachers this year. We didn't have to lay off support staff."

The fiscal situation is expected to worsen next year, and will likely include such layoffs. For this fiscal year, state officials softened the education blow by tapping into a rainy-day fund and using a portion—about $75 million—of a one-time federal payment for education costs. Congress handed states about $20 billion in extra aid, some of it for Medicaid reimbursements, as part of a compromise on tax legislation earlier this year.

Marty Connors, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party and an opponent of the referendum, said he shares the concern about the announced cuts for this year. But he argues that the problem with education is not how much money is spent, but where it goes.

"The lack of money for textbooks, or for that matter classroom activities, is a symptom, not the disease," Mr. Connors said. "It's being sucked up by some extraordinary teacher benefits."

He contends that "the disease is the teachers' unions."

Mr. Azbell said that the state does need to get teacher- benefit costs under control, but he argued that such an effort is only one "piece of a very large puzzle."

"Keep in mind that part of [the tax plan] would have required teachers to pay more for their health insurance," he said. "Everybody understands that we have to get [teacher retirement and teacher benefits] under control. ... But when you're looking at deficits the size that we have, that's not going to magically cure all our ills."

Some education programs survived the process unscathed.

For instance, the Alabama Reading Initiative received as much as it did in the last budget, or $12.5 million. And the budget gave a modest lift to the amount teachers receive for classroom supplies, from $525 per teacher last year to $584 this year. However, $100 of the per-teacher amount must be spent for schoolwide supplies, such as costs for photocopiers.

Vol. 23, Issue 6, Pages 18,20

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