State education budget sees widespread support in committee hearing

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The House Ways and Means Education Committee heard public remarks Wednesday regarding the Education Trust Fund budget. The budget, which centers on a bill sponsored by Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa), includes a series of bills that together create a package that addresses appropriations, pay raises and more.

HB117 calls for, among other things, a $14 million increase in funding for Alabama’s top-ranking Pre-K program. The two-year increase in funding will amount to $24 million, bringing funding to the program to more than $60 million.

The most significant increases in the education budget are reserved for K-12 programs, specifically a 4 percent pay raise for all public school employees making less than $75,000 annually. Those making over that threshold would receive a 2 percent salary increase.

The bill calls for the full funding of the teachers’ retirement system and an additional $8 million for textbooks, whether hardback or digital. An additional $7 million dollars is being appropriated for transportation and an increase of $5 million for classroom technology, which will accompany the $12 million allocated via the WIRED Ahead Act

Employees with the community college system will see a 4 percent pay raise, as well a funding increase of $2 million for career technology, while university employees will receive a 1 percent pay raise.

The committee members then allowed members of public, which nearly filled the meeting room on the main floor of the Statehouse, to speak for or against the measure. In all, more than 10 people spoke in favor of the measure, the majority of whom work in Pre-K and public library programs. Many of those who supported the legislation also rallied for increases to the Alabama Public Library System, noting that the program serves a wide array of students and adults through digital services.

Once discussion on the budget completed, two people spoke up against HB121, also sponsored by Poole, which specifies the pay increase for public education employees. Susan Kennedy, Public Policy and Governmental Relations Manager for the Alabama Education Association, made perhaps the finest point on the need for Alabama teachers to receive a significant pay raise.

Kennedy cited data showing that the rate of inflation has increased by 10.5 percent since 2009, while teachers have gone without a raise, and noted that a 5 percent raise for teachers would amount to an economic boost of about $22 million in the first year. Kennedy also brought up concerns over line items in the bill, echoed later by Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham), which have little or nothing to do with education: specifically $109 million allocated for the Supreme Court Library, the Civil Air Patrol, veterans education programs, Alabama Archives and History, and other “pet projects” specific to legislators’ districts.

Though the conversation about the two bills continued for nearly two hours, the committee ended up giving a favorable report to both, as well as the accompaniment bills that specify particular items in the budget.

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