Tax plan is called #039;essential#039;

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 19, 2003

Editors Note: This the second in a multi-part series on Gov. Bob Riley's tax and accountability proposal that will be voted on Sept. 9 in a statewide referendum.

The way Debbie Fortune sees it, passage of Gov. Bob Riley's $1.2 billion tax and accountability package is essential for education.

"The only way we're going to move ahead is to pass this package," she said.

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Fortune heads the innovative Southeast Alabama Learning Network at Troy State University, and she isn't alone. Many local educators say that the package Alabamians will vote on in a special election Sept. 9 will move Alabama education ahead by leaps and bounds.

"(Riley) didn't just fill the void, he's looking to offer new opportunities to students and residents of the State of Alabama," Troy school superintendent Hank Jones said.

Jones serves on the board of the Alabama Association of School Administrators, and on the Council of Leaders in Alabama Schools.

"We've had a fairly significant amount of discussion on (the package), and the accountability measures that were brought forward were a result of both organizations having input in the package," he said.

Riley's proposal includes two basic provisions: tax reform that will raise some $1.2 billion, and accountability reform that includes both education reform and general accountability issues.

Education reform includes expansion of the Alabama Reading Initiative, expansion of the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, a college scholarship plan, incentive pay for educators, shifting principals from tenure to performance-based contracts, eliminating tenure for school administrators, require school boards to hire financial managers, give more flexibility to schools in spending decisions, and the removal of non-education items from the Education Trust Fund.

Other accountability reform measures make changes in the health insurance program for state employees and teachers, require new revenue generated by the tax package to be un-earmarked, provides for the automatic repayment of withdrawals from the rainy-day fund, provides for the line-item budgeting process, and ends "pass-through pork" be legislators.

"I hope this passes," said Linda Steed, president of the Pike County School Board. "I'm willing to sacrifice."

Steed attended one of Riley's pro-tax package rallies last month.

"We felt like this was the best thing for the school boards in Alabama," she said.

"People are not informed enough about what good is going to come from the tax increase," she said.

Riley breaks the accountability portion of the package into classroom investment, college scholarships, incentive pay, tenure and fair dismissal, fiscal management and local flexibility.

Classroom investment

Under the proposed package, the Alabama Reading Initiative would be fully funded to include all public schools kindergarten through sixth grade, and would fund a reading specialist at every ARI school.

The Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative would be expanded, Funding would be provided to take the North Alabama pilot program to scale statewide. It would provide teachers and students intensive training in the three subject areas. New funding for textbooks, libraries and technology would also be made available.

College Scholarships

The plan would provide scholarships to state public colleges, junior colleges, technical colleges and universities to all students meeting criteria related to class rank, ACT score and grade-point average. The measure is aimed at improving student performance from kindergarten through 12th grade, and providing a chance for students to pursue higher education who might not have the money to attend otherwise.

Incentive Pay

Under these provisions, math, science and special education teachers would get a $5,000 bonus for agreeing to teach in hard-to-staff schools, including rural and high-poverty urban schools. The state would launch a scholarship program for educators who agree to teach in hard-to-recruit areas. The scholarships would be available for high school students, college sophomores who are entering a teacher preparation program in Alabama, and to current educators pursuing advanced degrees in those subject areas.

Tenure and fair dismissal

New administrators, supervisors, principals, assistant principals and financial managers will be hired on performance-based contracts and will not be eligible for tenure.

The process for dismissal of tenured employees would also be streamlined and the Alabama Tenure Commission would be abolished. Binding arbitration would be used in teacher dismissals.

Tenured administrators would be eligible for a $5,000 bonus if they voluntarily relinquish their tenure.

Fiscal Management

New laws would require local school boards to hire a financial manager, and to share financial information with the state Department of Education. Superintendents would be required to have training in financial areas, and provides funding for the state to purchase new accounting software for distribution to the local systems.

Accountability measures also include requirements that local school systems be audited annually, and strengthen the state superintendent's financial takeover powers.

Local flexibility

Under the proposal, more spending decisions will be made at the local level to address the needs of individual schools, along with an increase in funding from the initiative areas.

The minimum number of school days would increase toward the national average of 180 days, and local school boards would have more say over the allocation of resources to serve the interests of their students.

Other accountability issues included in the proposal are:

o increased premiums and co-pay levels for state employees' and teachers' insurance

o dividing new revenue raised under the proposal between the General Fund and the Education Trust Fund without earmarking funds

o prohibiting pass-through pork legislative programs

o establishes the Alabama Excellence Fund for new revenues