Funding should protect schools

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 27, 2006

Governor Bob Riley says that we have “surplus funds” in the Education Trust Fund.

And he is trying to spend every dime.

Worse still, he wants to spend the funds in ways that will not do the most good for our children.

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The very words “surplus funds” convey the wrong message.

How can these be “surplus funds” when the Education Trust Fund is $1 billion in debt?

How can these be “surplus funds” when all but seven of the 50 states better fund their schools?

How can these be “surplus funds” when we pay our teachers less than all but four of the 50 states?

How can these be “surplus funds” when our needs are so much greater than the funds?

Clearly, these are “unexpected funds,” not “surplus funds.”

Most of these “unexpected funds” are not in hand.

This year, we are projecting an additional $1 billion in the Education Trust Fund.

However, the only bird we have in hand is $300 million.

The other $700 million is “projected,” or as the old folk say, “birds in the bush.”

Our economy, and therefore funding for education, has been extremely unpredictable over the last five years.

In 2000, we predicted too much money, ended up in proration and had to cut school spending in the middle of the year.

In 2001, we had to make severe downward adjustments in the budget.

In 2003, we predicted too much money and ended up in proration.

In 2004 we had to again make severe cuts, wiping out funding for schoolbooks.

In 2004 and 2005 we predicted too little funds.

We are now predicting for the budget year commencing in October and ending in September 2007.

Rising oil prices, declining housing sales, rising inflation, etc. make it very unpredictable.

Because it’s so hard to predict, we must have a savings account as well as a line of credit (credit card).

That’s why it pains me that Governor Riley wants to close the savings account and spend every dime.

Last year, House Budget Chair Representative Richard Lindsey and I worked hard to save some monies because we were profoundly impacted by having to wipe out funds for schoolbooks and cut funds for libraries, teacher training, etc.

So we made sure we had $35 million dollars in the Proration Prevention Account (PPA).

We also placed a provision in the budget that shifted 75 percent of any “unanticipated funds” to the PPA. Growth was better than expected so $199 million was added to PPA, making $234 million.

It was just three years ago that we had to borrow $180 million dollars from the Rainy Day Fund.

We still owe $72 million of that sum.

Gov. Riley says we don’t need the Proration Prevention Account (savings account), because we can borrow from the Rainy Day Fund (credit card).

I say we need both, but he wants to close the savings account and spend every dime.

There are many needs in our schools.

There are still children without schoolbooks.

Many of our school libraries are suffering.

When we had to cut funding to schools in 2004, we did not make up for the loss.

If Governor Riley wants to spend every dime, the least he should do is give the money to the schools so they can decide whether to get additional books for our children, reduce class sizes, expand course selection, build additional classrooms, etc.

Instead, he wants to spend every dime on that which provides the best reelection opportunities.

What the Governor wants to do is put $500 million in capital outlay (buildings, etc.).

He wants to give 20 percent of our teachers a 2.25 percent pay raise.

Every other teacher gets less and some do not get anything at all.

Other education employees will not receive one red cent in raises.

His plan only works if there is no real raise.

As a result, we will continue to lose more and more teachers to Georgia, Florida and Mississippi and other states.

Under Governor Riley’s plan, our public schools come out on the short end of the capital funding stick.

Only half of the $500 million will go to all our schools.

There are two discretionary funds (slush funds) called “burned out schools fund” and “school consolidation fund” but no special fund for unsafe schools.

Simply put, too little money reaches our schools and too little of those sums addresses the most critical needs.

Finally, $250 million is just not enough capital outlay for our schools.

If a bond issue is done the right way, it can provide a lot more.

It’s just that a bond issue cannot be effectively done in this heated election year.

Our decisions have to be about our schools.

When we spend every dime on the wrong things, it’s about us, not our children.

In spite of great election year challenges, we will protect our schools.

We will lift our children.