- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Alabama Senate approved an education budget Thursday that would fund a one-time bonus of 1 percent for public school employees, add middle school teachers and expand Alabama’s pre-kindergarten program.

The $5.9 billion budget for the 2014-2015 school year cleared the Senate 21-10, with support from Republicans and opposition from Democrats who said not enough money was going into classrooms. The budget now goes to the House.

Republican Gov. Robert Bentley recommended a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for public school employees. Budget committee Chairman Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, said the state can’t sustain the $74 million cost of a 2 percent raise, but a 1 percent bonus costing $34.7 million is affordable. Bentley said 2 percent is financially sound and he hopes to get it restored before the budget reaches his desk for signing.

The funding for the 1 percent bonus is in the budget, but the Senate had to approve a separate bill 21-10 to pay the bonus. The average bonus will be $479, according to legislative estimates.

The budget would add about 250 middle school teachers to help address troubled students at risk of dropping out and would increase the funding for pre-kindergarten programs by one-third, or $10 million, to add more students.

The budget approved by the Senate cuts funding for Alabama State University by about $10 million below this year’s level, but the governor could restore the money later. Pittman said the cut is to help ASU’s new president, Gwendolyn Boyd, achieve changes after forensic auditors questioned some spending at the historically black university.

The governor said he opposes the cut because Boyd is doing a good job. Boyd called the cut “an attack on the students, faculty and staff of our university.”

The Senate approved the budget a few hours after hundreds of college students rallied in front of the Statehouse to urge legislators to allocate more money for universities and help keep tuition down.

“Every year I’ve been in school it’s gone up a little bit,” said Madison Rhoads, a junior at Jacksonville State University.

The governor told the students that state funding for higher education has gone up every year he’s been in office. He said it has not been as much as some would like, but it has been positive.

“We are going to do everything we can to continue to improve the funding for higher education,” he said.

The budget approved by the Senate would give most universities about the same amount or slightly more than they are getting this year. About 26 percent of the budget would go for higher education. That percentage has held steady for several years.

The college students called for a bigger share and chanted “one-third.”

During the rally, Bentley took notice of Alabama State students carried signs saying “Put Students Before Politics” and “Save My ASU.”

“I am on your side,” he told them.

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