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Schools look toward stimulus plan

All eyes in the state are watching in eager anticipation for the outcome of the president’s stimulus package. It may feel that way if you work for a public school district in Alabama.

Area school boards and superintendents are hoping the stimulus bill passed by the House last month successfully navigates through the Senate without any major problems. That’s because a chunk of the bill includes what amounts to a bailout for the state’s worsening education funding crisis.

As the first day of the state’s legislative session opened Tuesday, Gov. Bob Riley was painting a gloomy picture for teachers, who are already nervously anticipating more cuts. He told students from several high schools through a live interactive video exchange that the state needs the federal stimulus package to pass to avoid widespread layoffs.

State Representative A.J. McCampbell of Demopolis stated as he prepared for the new session that the legislature would be dominated with trying to balance the budget in a manner that has the least impact on classrooms.

“We made tremendous progress over the past decade in education, from expanding the Alabama Reading Initiative to every school, to reducing class sizes and improving technology. All of that is now at risk,” he said. “Every member of the Legislature knows that children only get one chance at education, and that these tough times should not rob students of the opportunity to learn.”

Obama’s $819 billion stimulus plan aims to spark the economy with a mix of tax cuts and public spending, including $41 billion for schools. The plan passed the U.S. House last week by a vote of 244 to 188, but awaits a vote in the Senate.

“The stimulus package does not and should not fill all of the state budget shortfalls. We have a responsibility ourselves to find the means to pay for what we expect out of state government,” said McCampbell. “But federal aid during this time of economic turmoil may get us past the worst of the immediate crisis, and give us time to find alternatives to firing thousands of teachers.”

Although state officials have put such a high emphases on pushing support for the bill, the only Alabama delegate to Congress who supports the House version is Congressman Artur Davis.

“While the expense of this stimulus plan is massive, an economy losing 60,000 jobs in one day demands bold action. Alabama, in particular, will benefit from the recovery plan, which could add close to $800 million dollars to our Medicaid program and $960 million to restore critical education funding,” said Congressman Davis. “If these funds make it to our state, our people may be spared debilitating reductions in both the quality of our schools and in the strength of our safety net for vulnerable Alabamians.”

Conservatives, including the state’s other congressional delegates say more spending could prolong recession, cause inflation and expand bureaucracy.