1st post-recession budget offered for Ala. schools

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The State Board of Education recommended its first post-recession budget for public schools Thursday and set a goal of hiring back one-third of the teachers cut when the state's tax revenue plunged.

The proposed budget for the next school year also seeks to restore textbook spending and school operational funds that were cut.

After four years of having to reduce spending, the school board got excited about planning a school budget where there will be more to spend. "This is a tremendous piece of work," said board member Charles Elliott of Decatur.

The board proposed that K-12 spending increase from $3.7 billion this year to $4.1 billion next year, a rise of $416 million.

The extra money would hire 459 teachers, or one-third of the 1,377 positions cut, and it would start rolling back the larger class sizes that resulted from the teacher cuts. The proposed budget would also raise school operating funds by $38.6 million, or one-third of the $116 million cut during the recession; increase the money to purchase textbooks from $31 per student to $75 per student; improve funding for school transportation programs; restore some of the arts programs cut in recent years; and start new initiatives.

Alabama's spending on K-12 schools, two-year colleges and universities peaked at $6.7 billion in 2008. It is $5.5 billion for the current year.

State fiscal experts expect to have nearly $408 more next year that will push the available education funding to $5.9 billion. That reflects an unemployment rate that has dropped from 10.0 percent to 8.3 percent in the last 14 months and a more than 4 percent growth in the state's collections of sales taxes and individual income taxes during the last year.

The board did not recommend a specific cost-of-living increase for K-12 school employees. State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice said teachers have not had an increase since they got a 7 percent raise in 2008, and approving a raise would be "a great message" for teachers. But he said the board is leaving that decision to the governor and the Legislature, which convenes in February to start writing a budget for the next school year.

The state teacher's organization, the Alabama Education Association, is seeking a 10 percent raise. Some legislators have offered smaller proposals. Each 1 percent raise would cost $35.5 million.

The school board's proposed budget includes an expansion of Alabama's voluntary pre-kindergarten program. It also proposes annual grants of $5,000 to help college students get their teaching degrees. In return, they would be committed to teach for four years in low-performing schools.

Bice said one common trend among Alabama's low-performing high schools is that they cut arts programs during the tough times to focus their resources on math and reading. That's because those programs were used to measure success under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state board's budget proposes providing $5 million in new state funding for the arts and bringing in local and regional art organizations to work with the schools.

Bice said the arts, like sports, are vital to producing well-rounded students.