Proration leads to special Sunday session

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 25, 2001

Staff Writer

Today will be no day of rest for Alabama lawmakers.

Members of the Alabama Legislature have been working since Thursday to come up with a way to prevent major cuts to K-12 education.

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Members of the House of Representatives will reconvene at 6 p.m. today and Senators will return to the State House at noon Monday.

Under the meeting schedule, the Legislature will not be able to pass law by the March 27 deadline set by Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Tracey McCooey, who ruled Thursday that funding for K-12 can not be prorated. Her ruling came after the Alabama Association of School Board, along with the Pike County and Mobile County board of education, filed a lawsuit in which the school officials stated the governor’s proration of 6.2 percent would reduce the $4.3 billion state education budget by $266 million and force layoffs of about 1,800 teachers.

Gov. Don Siegelman, who called McCooey’s decision "wrongheaded" said he was "not interested in the judge’s deadline,"

but called legislators into a special session.

McCooey set that deadline because the monthly checks will go out on March 28. If a law is passed later, payments to schools and colleges could be adjusted to offset any payments made under the judge’s order.

The governor said he wants to protect the jobs of teachers, but his plan would still reduce the current budget by about 4.5 percent. Other education appropriations, such as those for colleges and universities will be cut by about 10 percent.

Bills introduced by Siegelman would, he said,:

· Prohibit cuts in K-12 teachers’ salaries and debt obligations.

· Allow local school boards and superintendents more flexibility in spending state money for the remainder of the school year and the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

· Reduce the possibility of revenue shortfalls by basing Education Trust Fund budgets on the current year’s tax collections, rather than on projections.

· Create a Grants to Troubled Schools Fund that would provide money to prevent teacher layoffs.

· Provide supplemental appropriations totaling $12 million, including a $5 million conditional appropriation along with any other extra money in this year’s education budget, to avoid layoffs, with $5 million drawn from the teacher’s health insurance program and $1 million drawn from the Public School and College Authority that funds construction projects.

· Allow the Public School and College Authority to provide money for school operating expenses, transportation and critical needs.

· Through a constitutional amendment, allow voters to create a Public Education Proration Prevention Fund.

· Require putting aside 0.5 percent of the total appropriations of the Education Trust Fund, each year, into a savings account.

State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, does not see a real solution in Siegelman’s plan and views it more as robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"I think the bills, the way they’re written, could cost Troy State University 13 to 15 percent," Boothe said.

The TSU employee said Chancellor Jack Hawkins addressed legislators Friday morning and appears to have gotten their attention.

But, Boothe also had his say on Friday.

"I told them (lawmakers) that if we pass these, we’ll need to hang a ‘going out of business’ sign in front of our colleges and universities. That’s what you’re doing ­ your driving higher education out of business."

Boothe said all he wants is the same thing college and university presidents are asking for ­ what’s fair for everyone.

Douglas Patterson, vice chancellor of TSU, said the governor’s plan would put the burden of proration up to 18 percent, which would force the TSU System to cut $7 million from its budget this year.

TSU is considering ­ if that much has to be cut ­ the result will be a 40 percent tuition increase; the elimination of at least 60 faculty and staff positions, in turn raising class sizes; cuts in fine arts programs, such as canceling all dramatic and musical theater productions and discontinuing all choral groups; eliminating technology and equipment purchases, career development services and student counseling services.

"This is the most complicated issue I’ve ever faced in my 20 years in the Legislature," said Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne.

He said many lawmakers are talking about the need to pass a bill that will eliminate proration and the only way to "get around proration is another budget."

But, none of the governor’s seven bills address that, Mitchell said.

"I think some of the bills put in are totally unacceptable and some could do some good," Mitchell said.

One he is totally against would forbid school systems to layoff anyone. But, layoffs are sometimes necessary, such as the event of a major industry shutting its doors, forcing families and school children to leave the area and eliminating the need for some teachers.

Leaders in Montgomery, Mitchell said, are looking at the issue from different angles ­ legal, political and the impact on the Education Trust Fund.

"Anything we do could affect further budgets," Mitchell said.