A $5.9 million spending plan passed out of a Senate Committee Wednesday slashing the governor's proposed 2 percent pay raise for teachers.
Lawmakers say the raise would push the budget over its spending limit, the governor disagrees. Instead, lawmakers swapped the raise for a 1 percent bonus, shoring up $40 million. Republicans were concerned about sustaining the raise, whereas a bonus is a one-time allotment.
The Education Trust Fund is funded by one of the most unstable revenue streams in the state, and it fell short for yet another year. Sen. Trip Pittman says it was one of the most difficult budgets to compile since he's been chairman of the ETF.
"The budget before us is a tremendous challenge," Pittman said.
State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice, local superintendents and association leaders pleaded their case before the committee. Their chief concerns: transportation funding, additional middle school teachers and operating costs used to fund bus drivers, lunchroom workers and items not earmarked in the budget.
Bice realized he would leave without a fully funded agenda.
"We have to request what we need, not what the economy will allow for," Bice said.
The current budget would provide a small increase for transportation and operating costs, funding approximately half of the 450 middle school teachers requested by the state.
Elmore County Superintendent Dr. Jeff Langham attended Wednesday's budget meeting to get an accurate picture of what his system is facing in fiscal year 2015.
While he didn't know how the increase in middle school teachers would impact his district, he says it's a top priority.
"Middle school is our most critical need. I say that as a superintendent and a parent of a middle school student," Langham said.
Langham left the meeting, calling the experience, "déjà vu."
While the money appears to be better for the ETF in 2015, the fiscal year will remain a daunting challenge for Langham and his colleagues.
"I appreciate the efforts. I don't want to seem ungrateful. It's still a drastic shortfall for what we need to operate on a daily basis," Langham said.
Higher education advocates echoed similar sentiments, soundly disappointed in the funding effort for Alabama's public colleges and universities.
"We've got to fund higher ed as priority also," stressed Higher Education Partnership Executive Director Gordon Stone.
Stone reports the state's higher education system has a $12 billion economic impact yet Alabama's median income is 43rd in the nation. He says properly funding pre-k through Ph.D. would be a shot in the arm to the state's economy and major industries.
As for this budget, "The burden is shifted to students and families. If we don't take care of them our universities won't be producing the leaders, problem-solvers and difference makers that our state need," Stone said.
A major blow to higher education funding came in the way of a $10.8 million cut for Alabama State University. Pittman said conditional priority funding would be in place to return that money to ASU's coffers. However, it would be on the governor's watch.
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