Super #8216;optimistic#039; about education#039;s future

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 14, 2006

Gov. Bob Riley's $1 billion increase for educational spending was a positive step forward for Alabama's school systems, according to Butler County Superintendent Mike Looney.

&#8220We're heading in the right direction,” said Looney. &#8220And we're cautiously optimistic about the future.”

Riley's educational budget includes additional funding for a number of programs Looney is a proponent of, including the Alabama Reading Initiative and a budgeted $1 million for advanced placement courses.

And a $675 million deficit, inherited when he took office three year's ago, said Riley during his state-of-the-state address on Monday night, has turned into a $500 million surplus. Riley is asking lawmakers to appropriate all or part of the surplus to Alabama schools. The money, a one-time gift, would be used for capital improvements to school facilities.

&#8220Very rare is the day I don't receive a letter from a school superintendent, a teacher or a parent describing needed repairs at their schools,” Riley said. &#8220I've traveled across the state and seen with my own eyes the crumbling conditions of some of our schools and the need to build new ones to meet rising enrollment.”

Rep. Charles Newton (D-Greenville) said he supported Riley's proposal. Newton said he's spoken with several state superintendents about the need for capital improvement funds.

&#8220There's no doubt that there are school facilities, not just in Butler County, but in Alabama that need improvement,” Newton said.

The School Superintendents of the Alabama Board of Directors released a statement supporting Riley's appropriation plans. It reads:

&#8220Our students need to be able to attend classrooms and schools that are well maintained and in good repair. We support Gov. Riley's proposal to make this happen.”

Butler County stands to gain $1.2 million, as part of the appropriation should lawmakers give their approval.

&#8220We think it would be appropriate,” said Looney. &#8220We do not have the money budgeted to make improvements to our schools.”

Still, Looney said state funding is only one slice of a &#8220woefully under funded” pie. He said the success of a school system ultimately depends on the amount of local support it receives.

&#8220I think a lot of it in the past is that we've done a very poor job in explaining to the public how money is spent and where each dollar goes in the schools,” he said. &#8220That's a problem we are doing our best to correct.”

Tight budgets and lack of funding also make it extremely hard for school administrators to lure quality teachers to Alabama, said Looney. State lotteries in Florida and Georgia, and the dollars they bring in, allow school officials in those states to offer signing bonuses and other benefits to prospective teachers.

Starting salaries for teachers in all three states are basically equal, he said, but the opportunity for frequent pay raises in Florida and Georgia often means Alabama loses another teacher.

&#8220It's a challenge,” he said. &#8220What we try to do is sell people on the value of our communities in Butler County. We have wonderful people in our school system alreadyŠpeople who love Alabama and are loyal to this state. Obviously, those are the kind of people we look for. And the people who are motivated by money are usually going to go someplace else.”

Newton said this year's legislative session should be an interesting one. Other issues Riley has put before the legislature include a $200 million tax cut, a proposed teacher pay raise based on experience, and what he says are needed governmental reforms, including term limits for legislators.

And Newton said there's very little funding available to address the state's other needs. Education dollars are earmarked by the state constitution, he said, and there's a greater need for more money in the general fund.

&#8220I don't want to say we're in a bind, but it's going to be difficult to find the money to meet funding for more state troopers, our prisons and Medicare,” he said.