By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
Local educators are cautiously optimistic for the 2013 state education budget, which state officials say could restore funding that had been slashed in recent years.
The State Board of Education hopes to hire back one-third of the teachers cut when the state's tax revenue plunged, plus restore text book funding that has left several school systems either duct-taping old books or digging into local coffers to replace them.
The board proposed that K-12 spending increase from $3.7 billion this year to $4.1 billion next year, a rise of $416 million — which comes in the wake of four years of cuts.
A total of 1,377 teachers were laid off statewide due to cuts and an increase in class sizes, and the proposed budget would hire back 459 of those positions and start trending the teacher-student ratio back to pre-2008 levels.
“That’s all good news and we’ll definitely wait and see if it really happens,” Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman said. “There is always a lot of uncertainty out there with our economy, but the fact that people are talking about it means they recognize some of the needs that we have. But for now, we’ll be waiting to make sure it really happens.”
The county system has trimmed teachers along with the state in recent years, and Coleman said he’d love to bring some back and start reducing class sizes. The system used $400,000 in local funds this year to replace outdated textbooks, and Coleman said any help in that area would also be appreciated.
“We spent that money this year because we had to have textbooks, and when divisors went up we lost some teacher units,” he said. “Of course, with the economy, things are sometimes beyond our control.”
Aside from teaching positions, Cullman City Schools Superintendent Dr. Jan Harris said operating expenses, such as textbook and teacher supply money, are among the areas she would most like to see restored.
“I’m in favor of them increasing the budget, because we haven’t had money to adequately fund the purchase of textbooks for a number of years and we’ve used local dollars,” she said. “Everybody is suffering from a lack of funding in all those key areas, from library enhancement to copiers, and we do need to have attention in those important areas to run our schools efficiently.”
The proposed budget would also raise school operating funds by $38.6 million, or one-third of the $116 million cut during the recession; increase the money to purchase textbooks from $31 per student to $75 per student; improve funding for school transportation programs; restore some of the arts programs cut in recent years; and start new initiatives.
State fiscal experts expect to have nearly $408 more next year that will push the available education funding to $5.9 billion. That reflects an unemployment rate that has dropped from 10.0 percent to 8.3 percent in the last 14 months and a more than 4 percent growth in the state's collections of sales taxes and individual income taxes during the last year.
The board did not recommend a specific cost-of-living increase for K-12 school employees. State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice told the Associated Press teachers have not had an increase since they got a 7 percent raise in 2008, and approving a raise would be “a great message” for teachers. That decision will ultimately lie with the governor and the legislature, which convenes in February to start writing a budget for the next school year.
The state teacher's organization, the Alabama Education Association, is seeking a 10 percent raise. Some legislators have offered smaller proposals. Each 1 percent raise would cost $35.5 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.