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$6.7 billion
for schools

Teachers would get raise in record education budget passed by House

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House on Thursday approved a record $6.7 billion education budget that gives teachers and other education employees a 7 percent pay raise and retirees a one-time bonus.

The House voted 101-0 to give education employees the pay hike and then later approved the education budget on a 99-4 vote. The budget is about $450 million more than what was spent on education last year.

House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said the budget fully funds the requests of the Alabama Board of Education for grades K-12 and will improve Alabama's historically low ranking nationally for how much the state spends per pupil on education.

"It moves Alabama closer to fully funding schools," Hammett said. He said he was particularly pleased that the spending plan increases the amount spent on textbooks from $67.50 a student to $75 a student.

Funding for buses

The budget also increases funding for school buses, school nurses and programs to work with at-risk and gifted students. The budget sponsor, Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, said the spending plan includes about $269.4 million to pay the cost of the pay raise, which would take effect in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Both the pay raise bill and the budget now go to the Senate for debate.

The pay raise would be the third increase in a row for teachers, who received a 5 percent hike during the current fiscal year and a 6 percent increase last year.

The head of the state teachers union, Paul Hubbert, said the pay hike for the next fiscal year would be another step toward his goal of raising the pay of the state's teachers to the national average. He said the raises will cut down on the number of Alabama teachers who leave to work in other states.

"This will bring us into a more competitive position with higher paying states around us. We won't catch Georgia, but we will be able to hold some of the teachers we've been losing," said Hubbert, executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association.

Riley's requests

The budget reduced some items requested by Republican Gov. Bob Riley in his proposed budget, including cutting a requested $30 million for work force development to $8 million. Republican lawmakers said the money was needed to fill promises made to train workers for new industries coming into the state.

The House voted to add the $22 million back into the budget as a conditional appropriation, which means the money will be spent if funds are available. But House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said that was not good enough.

"This is not a conditional expense. This is an absolute commitment. When the state makes a commitment you have to live up to it," Hubbard said.

Riley said he would work to have full funding for the worker training restored when the budget is considered in the Senate.

"These are absolute commitments made over the last six or seven years," Riley said. "This is not optional."

Some representatives criticized the spending plan for not doing enough to reduce the student/teacher ratio in middle schools, where discipline problems are often considered the most severe. Lindsey said the student/teacher ratio in grades 4-8 would drop from 24.4 to 1 to 24.1 to 1 under the budget passed by the House Thursday.

"I'm getting tired of people telling me they are going to solve that problem," said Rep. Neal Morrison, D-Cullman.

Rep. Pat Moore, R-Pleasant Grove, said the Legislature needs to figure out a way to hire more middle school teachers.

"We have got to reduce the number of students in classrooms in grades 4 to 8," said Moore, a former teacher.

"During the more than three-hour debate on the budget, Lindsey fought off numerous attempts to add funding for numerous programs. One of those amendments, by Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, would have provided $6.7 million to offer tax incentives to small businesses that offer health insurance to employees. That amendment was defeated on a 57-34 vote.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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