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Education Budget Debated in Committee: Passes in Senate

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Tuesday, April 14 the Alabama Senate passed SB179 the Education Trust Fund budget with the unified support of both political parties 33 to 0. The budget included an additional $13.5 million increase for the state’s voluntary Pre-K program. 

State Senator Cam Ward (R from Alabaster) said on Twitter, “Al Senate just passed the #Education Trust Fund Budget unanimously w/ little controversy. Very rare!”

On Wednesday, April 8 the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee met for a public hearing on SB179, the Education Trust Fund Budget for Fiscal Year 2016.

Sen. Trip Pittman (R from Montrose) chairs the powerful committee. Pittman announced that the state has paid back the $437 million due to the Alabama Trust Fund.

The voters of Alabama voted to raid the money from the Alabama Trust Fund so the legislature would not have to right size the state’s troubled general fund before the 2014 elections. The money to pay back the ATF came from the Education Trust Fund…..that has a more stables source of revenue.

Chairman Pittman said that the budget is based on projections: “Time will only tell if they are accurate.” Pittman said that the governor submitted a budget. He made some suggestions that agencies currently in the education budget be moved to the general fund. “Some of those agencies had been in the education budget for years.”  Some of those agencies have requested staying in the education budget.         

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Sen. Pittman said that be baseline in the budge formulation is based on what we spent in 2015. Chairman Pittman said that the PACT requirement for 2016 is approximately $32.5 million in 2016. That could grow to $80 million by the end of the decade, Pittman warned.

Pittman said that the actual numbers of public school students declined so that freed up some money that money goes to the foundation program.  In the pre-K through 12 system experts say that the greatest challenges are in the middle school level so the committee moved money to add more 7th and 8th grade teachers.  The retirement system received an additional $6.7 million.  There is an additional appropriation for textbooks.

Sen. Vivian Figures (D from Mobile) asked if textbooks are fully funded: to 2008 levels.

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Pittman said, “No it does not get us to 2008 levels.”

Sen. Figures said that we haven’t fully funded textbooks for the children left behind, but we are letting money be diverted to scholarships.

Pittman said, “Education allows individuals to achieve their potential. It allows a representative democracy to survive.”

Sen. Pittman acknowledged that some arguably general fund agencies are funded in the education budget; but “Previous legislatures have diverted far greater funds.  John Dillinger robbed banks because that is where the money is.”

Pittman said that the lowering of diesel fuel will hopefully help in the transportation costs. The Committee has made a commitment has to increase funding for pre-K.  There are more and more students in the pre-K program every year.  Commissioner Ross said she wanted $20 million.  We were able to settle on $13.5 million.  This is voluntary pre-K.  There is no substitute for parents making good decisions.  “By the time you are 5 years old 80 percent of your cognitive abilities are developed.”  Vocabulary is the basis for phonics.  Phonic are the basis for the ability to read.  “If you have the ability to read you can teach yourself a lot of things.”

Pittman said that hopefully we have good teachers involved.  One of the keys for following that is student assessments.  Last year we were not able to fully fund the assessments called for.  To evaluate performance we need to establish a baseline.  “The superintendent (Tommy Bice) worked out a deal with the testing company so they were able to get those testing started.”  We will have to pay in arear.  Have increased the amount for standardized testing by $6 million.

Pittman said that school systems have made a good step in distance learning.  The systems should be applauded.  Distance learning access is extremely critical to deal with children from rural areas, that need extra time, discipline issues, with transportation problems or special needs.  “We increased access from $18 million to $20 million.”

Pittman said that the 2 year system has a lot of challenges.  There are very important for workforce development.  It is extremely important that the two year system provide quality instruction at the most affordable rate per credit hour.  Dual enrollment has increased from last year.  Children can get bored.  This allows children in HS to start getting credits.  It is a great program that deserves to be expanded.  Looking at the splits on the money there is a $5 million increase for Veterans Affairs.  We understand how important higher Ed is to Alabama. South Alabama got an increase because they have experienced a lot of growth. The PACT program solution was part of something that was not contemplated when the rolling reserve act was passed.  All of the other entities except for rehabilitation services were level funded. They received an additional $million for them to leverage $6 million in federal funds.

Alison Mulendorf with the ASRA thanked the Committee for doubling Alabama’s funding for Pre-K.  The first class of pre-K students are outperforming their peers.  They have better attendance and less are referred to Special Ed.  Mulendorf predicted that they will be more likely to graduate and attend college.  The program currently serves 13% of four year olds.  In the next few years she hoped that all students will have access to voluntary pre-K.  The $13.5 million is the increase needed to work toward the goal of fully funding the program by 2023.

Nancy Pack with the Alabama Public Library Service said that since 1958 we have had a public library in every county in the state.  That will change without needed state funding.

Sen. Pittman defended the money being spent on the expensive ACT Aspire testing.  Pittman said those standards are our state standards. “I am so adamant about the testing because we need to see if those standards are working.”  At this point to determine that we needed a baseline.  ACT is something that all of us are familiar with.

Roy Clem with Alabama Public Television (APT) said that there were America’s first statewide broadcasting system and have been serving the state for 60 years.

The ETF budget sailed through the Senate and now moves on to the Alabama House of Representatives where no major opposition is expected.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Retired U.S. Marines general endorses Doug Jones

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

Retired United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak has endorsed Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, the incumbent senator’s campaign announced Tuesday. 

Krulak, a Republican, served as the 31st commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s also the former president of Birmingham-Southern College. 

“Although I am a life-long Republican, I’m urging you to vote for Doug Jones. His work on the Armed Services Committee supports our veterans and military families, and ensures that we have the best equipped military in the world,” Krulak said in a new ad from Jones’s campaign. “Senator Doug Jones’ strong record of getting things done for Alabama and our military has earned our vote.” 

Jones in 2018 filed an amendment to make U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports on VA-run nursing homes public, and in 2019, introduced legislation that eliminated the Military Widow’s Tax, which impacted an estimated 2,000 surviving military spouses in Alabama alone.

In September, Jones introduced a bipartisan bill to address veteran suicide.

Krulak commanded a platoon and two rifle companies during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, according to his U.S. Marine Corps University biography. He was assigned duty as the deputy director of the White House Military Office in September 1987.

Krulak was promoted to General on June 29, 1995, and became the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps on July 1, 1995. He retired from the Marine Corps in June 1999.

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Crime

Alabama inmate dies after inmate-on-inmate assault

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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A Prattville man became at least the 19th Alabama inmate to have died this year in a state prison of circumstances that were avoidable. 

Edwin Wells, 29, died on Oct. 10 from injuries during an apparent inmate-on-inmate assault at the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed on Tuesday. 

Wells death makes at least the 19th inmate to have died from either suicide, drug overdoses or homicide, according to records kept by the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice. His death is at least the seventh suspected homicide in state prisons this year. 

ADOC doesn’t typically publish information on an inmate death unless a reporter discovers the death through other means and requests the information, with the expectation of deaths of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, which the department does regularly release. 

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the fatal actions taken against Wells by another inmate are being thoroughly investigated,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR. “Wells’s exact cause of death is pending a full autopsy, and more information will be available upon the conclusion of the investigation into his death.”

A U.S. Department of Justice report in April 2019 found that Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons for men were likely in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment and its prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and that ADOC regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates.

An expected followup report by the Department of Justice in July detailed why the federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. 

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As of Tuesday, at least 29 state inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19. There have been 453 confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates and 429 among prison staff as of Oct. 14, according to ADOC.

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Infrastructure

Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds

Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment. 

That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series. 

The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center. 

Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years. 

“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.” 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine. 

Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said. 

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“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”

Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere. 

The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center. 

Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider. 

Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below. 

“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said. 

Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students. 

“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.” 

“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues. 

An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities. 

Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet. 

“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said

Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.

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Economy

Governor announces auto supplier IAC plans Alabama expansion

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County.

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey announced Monday that International Automotive Components Group North America Inc. plans to invest over $55.9 million in expansion projects that will create 182 jobs at two Alabama facilities.

“International Automotive Components is a leading global auto supplier, and I am pleased that this world-class company is growing significantly in Alabama and creating good jobs in Cottondale and Anniston,” Ivey said. “IAC’s growth plans show that Alabama’s dynamic auto industry continues to expand despite today’s challenging environment.”

Nick Skwiat is the executive vice president and president of IAC North America.

“Alabama was the logical choice due to its skilled workforce and proximity to the customer,” Skwiat said. “We are excited to see the continued growth of the automotive industry in Alabama and we plan to grow right along with it. We thank the Governor and Secretary Canfield for their leadership in this sector.”

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County. This facility will produce door panels and overhead systems for original equipment manufacturers. That project will create 119 jobs at the production site in Cottondale.

IAC also plans to invest $21.6 million at its manufacturing facility located in the former Fort McClellan in Anniston. That East Alabama project will create another 63 jobs.

This project builds on a milestone 2014 expansion that doubled the size of the Calhoun County facility. There IAC manufactures automotive interior components and systems. Key components produced at the Anniston plant include door panels, trim systems and instrument panels for original equipment manufacturers.

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IAC Group is a leading global supplier of innovative and sustainable instrument panels, consoles, door panels, overhead systems, bumper fascias and exterior ornamentation for original equipment manufacturers.

IAC is headquartered in Luxembourg and has more than 18,000 employees at 67 locations in 17 countries. The company operates manufacturing facilities in eight U.S. states.

“With operations around the globe, IAC is the kind of high-performance company that we want in Alabama’s auto supply chain to help fuel sustainable growth,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “We look forward to working with IAC and facilitating its future growth in this strategic industrial sector.”

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Danielle Winningham is the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority.

“International Automotive Components is a valued part of Tuscaloosa County’s automotive sector,” Winningham said. “We are grateful for IAC’s investment in our community and the career opportunities available to our area workforce as a result of their investment.”

“The City of Anniston is excited that IAC has made the decision to expand here. I have enjoyed working with the leadership at IAC, the Calhoun County EDC, and the state of Alabama to get this project finalized,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper. “This is even further evidence that Anniston is indeed open for business.”

Only Michigan has more automobile manufacturing jobs than the state of Alabama. Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai, Polaris, Toyota and soon Mazda all have major automobile assembly plants in the state of Alabama.

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