Cullman education leaders said they are pleased with the education budget currently under consideration in the state Legislature, aside from the rejection of Gov. Bob Riley’s request for money to improve the campuses of state schools and colleges.

Jan Harris, superintendent of Cullman City Schools, said while she was pleased with the other allocations in the budget that left the House Education Committee last week, she had hoped the budget would include the $500 million sought by the governor for capital improvements.

The city school system would have received $1,017,441 for construction and renovations, according to numbers released by Riley’s office in January. The most pressing need in the system, Harris said, is the inadequate Cullman City Primary School cafeteria.

The newest of schools in the city, the primary school was originally built without a cafeteria. When transporting meals from the nearby high school became unfeasable, a storage room was converted to a makeshift kitchen. Classroom space, already in short supply, became a 436-seat dining room, now feeding about 700 students a day.

Harris said despite the absence of extra state money, the system “needs to go ahead” on building a larger cafeteria. Within a year, Harris said, she will likely ask the school board to start the project.

“If we would have received that money, it would have allowed us to look at some other needs as well,” she said.

While promoting his plan, Riley visited Vinemont High School, which is in the district of House education committee member Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Vinemont, Jan. 23. Cullman County Schools would have received $3,190,894 under Riley’s proposal.

County Schools Superintendent Nancy Horton said while the proposed budget was “very favorable for us,” she was also disappointed that it did not include the capital improvement money.

“We could certainly have used it, but we just have to get by with what they give us,” Horton said. “We’re kind of at the mercy of the Legislature.”

Half of the $500 million Riley requested would have gone to Alabama colleges. Wallace State Community College President Vicki Hawsey said the extra money would have helped, but the college can meet its capital needs without it.

“We certainly could have used those dollars for deferred maintenance, which is a significant cost; however, we will still be able to accomplish those objectives,” Hawsey said. She described the overall budget as “generous.”

Horton and other system officals had said many schools were in need of extensive upgrades to lighting, electrical and heating/cooling systems, which she highlighted to the governor during his tour in Vinemont.

Money is allocated in the budget to extend Alabama’s school year five days to 180 days, the standard in many states.

“I think that is a positive move for our students,” Harris said. “We have so many days taken out by testing.”

Standardized tests like the Alabama High School Graduation Exam and those required for lower grades by No Child Left Behind can consume a whole week or more of class time, Harris said.

Horton said the county school system would seek to add the five extra days to its calendar before those tests are administered, to give teachers and students extra time to prepare for the high-stakes exams that can determine how closely individual schools and systems are monitored and regulated by the state. Breaks in the fall might be shortened to squeeze days in, she said.

If the budget is approved as written, teachers paid by the state will be compensated for the extra five days. Individual school systems have additional teachers paid from local funds, and will have to pay those teachers for the extra five days. The city school system has about 25 such “local units,” and the county about a dozen.

The budget also includes a 5 percent raise for teachers, who received a 6 percent raise in the last budget.

“I’m always in favor of teacher raises because they work so hard, they deserve that,” Harris said.

Horton said the raise is a small step towards equality in teacher salaries in other states.

“We would like our teachers to feel like they’re compensated at a level with other teachers in the countrry, and we’re way on the bottom end (in Alabama),” she said.

Horton said she was also pleased to see increased funding for transportation, school nurses and physical education.

“I do appreciate the (legislative) committees looking at the needs we have and adressing those needs, because we do have some areas that need extra support,” Horton said.

“All in all, I think we have a lot to be thankful for this year at budget time,” Harris said.

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