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Education budget outlook slim

When it comes to education funding for the coming year, it’s still too early to tell just what will happen.

But, after one of the tightest education budgets in Alabama history, higher education and K-12 educators alike have started to look ahead.

With the Alabama Legislature set to convene in the first of the year, educators began budget discussion in the state capitol this week.

Though no numbers are known just yet, the future, as of now, doesn’t appear too bright.

“Our outlook is not as bright as we’d like and not as bad as it could be,” said Marcus Paramore, director of government relations for Troy University. “However, it’s still not a very pretty picture for the state of Alabama.”

Pike County Schools Superintendent Mark Bazzell agreed.

“Next year’s going to be another tough year, just like the last two,” Bazzell said.

When the legislature convenes this session, legislators will pass an education budget based on projections for the 2011 school year. After two years or prorated budgets, Bazzell said his hope is that trend will not repeat.

“As the legislature goes into session in January, it’s extremely important whatever budget they come up with, they do a good job of projecting what revenues are going to be,” Bazzell said.

“We can not have another year of proration. I would much rather have a budget that’s honest on the front end.”

For K-12 education, Bazzell said the main discussions will likely be in whether to increase student divisors or decrease employee benefits to help make ends meet.

Divisors determine how many students there can be for each teacher, and if that number is raised, the amount of state-funded teacher positions locally would drop, forcing local school systems to come up with the money or lay off employees.

Bazzell said the other discussion is whether to decrease employee benefits to help make up for shortfalls.

“The battle is probably going to be, in a nutshell, what’s done with divisors verses what’s done with benefits,” Bazzell said. “And, we’ll have to look at the K-12/higher education split.”

A split, four-year institutions told legislators this week, they hope to keep equitable.

“We know funds will be tight,” Paramore said.

“Cuts will be made, but the presentation (Thursday) was to show the need for equitable funds.”

What Paramore said is “equitable” is a traditional split.

“If there are cuts, we want them to be equitable across the board,” Paramore said. “There will be cuts in the Education Trust Fund, no doubt.”

Paramore said stimulus funds are keeping the education budget afloat right now, but the outlook will be even worse if the economy doesn’t improve soon.

“Thankfully, we’re propped up by stimulus money, but that will run out in fiscal year 2012. It will look even worse if the economy doesn’t improve by then,” he said.