Pledge won’t carry local signatures

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 2, 2001

Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY – School superintendents from across the state converged on Montgomery Wednesday to send out a very clear message: "do not cut our funding again."

Backed by the signatures of Gov. Don Siegelman and a number of other lawmakers promising to avoid any future funding cuts, the superintendents warned any cuts would be detrimental to the education of the state’s children.

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"We ask one question of our lawmakers today," said State Superintendent Ed Richardson. "How important is the education of our children in this state? It’s a simple question."

The educators were asking lawmakers to sign a pledge promising to avoid future cuts in an education system that is already suffering through a proration year, where education was cut 6.2 percent.

"In the 2001 budget, funding was cut 6.2 percent which equated to $176 million, and we were already talking about future proration of up to 4-5 percent," Richardson said. "We can’t afford another $120-125 million cut. And that isn’t the end of the story.

"If a solution to the education funding problem is not found soon, hopefully in the upcoming special session, school systems across the state will be looking at further personnel cuts that could total 3,000.

Crenshaw County School Superintendent Craig Pouncey, who is also president of the Alabama Association of School Administrators (AASA), said the funding already appropriated to education in Alabama is far below that of the state’s neighbors.

"We spend close to $4,200 per student in this state, while the states around us spend at least $6,600," Pouncey said. "We can’t afford another cut. Our children cannot afford any future cuts."

While a number of state lawmakers have already signed the pledge, few turned out for the press conference on Wednesday. One who did was State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, who is chairman of the Senate’s Education Trust Fund Committee.

"Since 1995 our education leaders have been pushing the education train up a mountain, making substantial progress," Sanders said. "If we have to cut education funding for one more year, not only will we stop the progress of that train, it could very well slide backwards."

Sanders received a cheer from the 60-plus superintendents gathered when he said educators are not being given the resources or backing they need.

"We are asking our teachers to meet some of the toughest graduation standards in the nation while giving them the resources well below the national average," Sanders said. "It is now up to us to step up to duty. I am signing this pledge not to make a promise, but to symbolize the commitment already in my heart."

Chilton County Superintendent Mildred Ellison was one of those on hand for the press conference. In an earlier interview, Ellison said she is keeping her fingers crossed.

"I am keeping my fingers crossed," Ellison said in the interview. "I hope that Gov. Siegelman and others can find a way to come up with money to avoid another proration year."

This recent proration year cost the Chilton County School System more than $1 million.

One of the leaders of the association pushing for the pledge, Hoover City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jack Farr, said the results of another year of proration could be far worse than any could imagine.

"The first year of proration the state lost more than 700 classroom teachers," Farr told those gathered. "If we have another year of proration in 2002 that number is going to double if not triple. Our kids cannot afford that."

At this time, neither of the names of Pike County’s delegation will appear on the pledge.

State Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, and State Rep. Alan Boothe, D-Troy, have both said they will not sign, but support education.

Mitchell said he has a 20-year track record of supporting education and won’t turn his back on that commitment even though he will not be signing the pledge.

"When I was elected I pledged I would use my best judgement in making any decisions impacting my constituents," Mitchell said.

The long-time state senator also said "it’s almost impossible to define cuts" because a decrease in one’s budget could mean an increase in another’s funding.

"I don’t have enough information at this time," Boothe said when asked whether or not he will sign the pledge.

He said committing to a pledge he doesn’t fully understand is "like signing a blank check."

With the economy as it is today, Boothe said he "didn’t feel the need to box myself in" by signing the pledge at this time, but feels strongly about providing adequate funding for education.

"I’m certainly in favor of us looking at all the options to fund education adequately in Alabama," Boothe said. "But, we don’t know, yet, what alternatives will be out there."

Tim Reeves, managing editor of The Clanton Advertiser, contributed to this report.