By Beth Clayton
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY–The Alabama State Department of Education met today for a work session, which included updates from the legislative session- primarily the education budget and the Alabama Accountability Act.
State Superintendent Tommy Bice discussed the ways in which the budget passed through the legislature and signed by the governor differed from the budget proposals the school board discussed during their meetings with members of the legislature.
The Board worked hard to look at the budget in a new way this year.
“Let’s put forth a budget based on identified needs,” Bice said, so that the school board could verify line items based on goals and a plan.
Bice said he presented the plan and budget to members of the legislature, school superintendents and members of the AEA before the legislative session began to get their feedback on the plan. The plan received a “huge positive response” at the legislative summit, according to Bice.
Overall, the plan was based around leveraging areas that could offer the biggest return for dollars spent, such as professional development for teachers.
“We weren’t asking for new money. We were asking for money that was already being spent, but to be able to spend it on something else that we had determined could leverage greater improvement,” Bice said.
The legislators asked Bice and Craig Pouncey, State Board of Education Chief of Staff, to revisit the budget and reduce it. Overall, Bice and Pouncey were able to reduce many budget items while still maintaining their priorities, Bice said. “They were very complimentary that we had reduced our budget.”
Once the legislature met to determine the education budget, “only one of the budget priorities got any funding, and in effect we lost money in several of them,” Bice said.
“It appears things were already predetermined before anybody had the opportunity to engage in the political process of the budget,” Pouncey said.
Pouncey defended the work of Bice and the Board of the Department of Education, saying the Governor even embraced many of their reforms. “I felt confident we were moving in the right direction…then, the first presentation of a budget by the legislative body totally ignored everything,” he said.
Overall, the request for a two percent pay raise was granted by the legislature, however several other budget items were reduced or cut entirely.
The education budget contains $7 million less than requested in operations (OCE), $19 million less in transportation and less than half that was requested for text books. Furthermore, the Board of Education’s budget included $193 million for reducing divisors, which will reduce the student-teacher ratio in the classroom. The legislature removed this budget item entirely.
“We had lost basically 13,000 teachers since 2010. We wanted to try to address that to regain those and reduce class sizes, particularly in our middle school grades,” Pouncey said.
The $193 million requested would have replaced about 250 teaching units.
The Board also requested to repurpose $10 million from the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) for their Human Capital Plan, to be used for professional development for teachers.
“Not only did they not fund the Human Capital Plan, they took the $10 million from ARI and did something else with it,” Pouncey said.
The Arts Education budget was cut to $1 million, which is earmarked entirely for the Shakespeare Festival. The Healthy Kids and Family program was eliminated from the budget entirely.
Two items received more money than the Board requested: K-4 education and CTE, the career tech education bond program. The Board requested $5 million for K-4 and the legislature granted $9 million for this budget item. Additionally, the Board requested $30 million for CTE, and the legislature added an additional $20 million to that bond initiative.
Bice said that the CTE program will help create a stronger partnership between high schools and community colleges. Pouncey added that it would help reduce overlap by ensuring that the same programs are not being taught in a high school and in a community college down the street. “We need to leverage those resources,” Pouncey said.
“Everything that we offered as an optional way of looking at things and accomplishing the State Board’s objectives, they took advantage of it where we couldn’t even reap the benefits of our knowledge and understanding of what needed to be done,” Pouncey said.
“We basically lost it twice. We didn’t get it for what we asked it for and we lost it from where we were going to take it from,” Bice added.
The board members expressed concern over the budget, especially while facing the expensive Accountability Act. While some of the board’s requests had been met, the general conclusion was that their expertise had been ignored in the budget process.