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Stimulus could help education budget

The passage of a federal stimulus package could mean brighter days ahead for the state’s education budget, but local superintendents aren’t getting their hopes too high.

With a budget now facing one of the worst deficits in Alabama history and an economy in severe recession, even a hefty federal stimulus might not be able to prevent the big hits that lie ahead, said Troy City Schools Superintendent Linda Felton-Smith and Pike County Superintendent Mark Bazzell.

Though Gov. Bob Riley said in a press conference Wednesday morning that a stimulus package could actually provide increases to the next education budget, Bazzell said it still may not mean much relief at home.

“It will depend on the actual language of the stimulus package,” Bazzell said. “It is true the budget may increase, but the real question is whether that language would be such it gives us some flexibility to use some of that money as a replacement for the loss of state dollars.”

Legislators have said they won’t begin delving into the budgeting process until the federal government makes a final decision on the more than $800 million stimulus, which Riley said would brighten the budget outlook for the 2010 fiscal year, starting in October.

Sen. Wendell Mitchell (D-Luverne) said while stimulus money would ensure program stability and eliminate teacher layoffs for the remainder of the budget year, he isn’t so sure it would carry over to 2010.

“There’s so much money in this stimulus package from Washington that we would be fine this year,” Mitchell said. “But it wouldn’t be money we could rely on to accomplish those same goals next year.”

And while they wait for federal and state budget decisions, local superintendents said they will be keeping a close watch on funds.

“If the stimulus package passes, there will be funds but these funds will not be available for all programs,” Felton-Smith said. “You would have to meet the requirements for these funds, and we will be working on completely understanding the stimulus package to see how it will apply to our system.”

Riley also announced he would fight hard to keep state education programs, like the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative and distance learning programs funded in the coming year.

While both superintendents said they are hopeful for at least matched funding for these, it still means cuts will have to come from somewhere.

One way Felton-Smith said has been discussed by lawmakers is increasing grade divisors, meaning putting more students in each classroom.

Depending on the raise, this could mean anywhere from 3 to 17 teachers in each school system may be laid off in the coming year, if the state chooses to follow this option.

“Increasing a grade divisor needs to be the absolute last alternative for cutting the budget,” Felton-Smith said.

But, until the budgeting process really begins in the statehouse, there’s no way to know for certain how local school systems will fare the economic storm in 2010.