Alaska educators welcome one-time funding increase, but say permanent increase is desperately needed

JUNEAU — Alaska school administrators are celebrating the $175 million in additional funding for public schools in this year’s state budget, but warn they will face huge deficits again next year, even if Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy decides not to veto some of the additional funds.

Permanently increasing the basic student appropriation, the state’s per-pupil funding formula, was a top priority for many in the Legislature this year. School districts across the state reported being in crisis after six years of essentially flat funding, high inflation, and the end of federal COVID-19 relief.

The Senate passed a bill this month to increase the BSA by $680 at a cost of $175 million, but the bill stalled in the House. A last-minute effort to pass the Senate measure was thwarted by a majority of the Republican-led House, which had been skeptical of permanently increasing public school funding this year without a comprehensive overhaul of the school funding formula. .

As a compromise, lawmakers instead approved a school funding increase just for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The Senate’s bipartisan majority touted it as the state’s largest non-formula single-year school funding increase.

School superintendents and education advocates said the temporary school funding would help districts survive but would not address their structural deficits. Funding comes at the end of its annual budget process, and administrators are wary of paying ongoing costs if the same level of school funding is not approved next year.

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The Department of Education and Early Development posted a funding formula online that shows how much each school district would receive of the $175 million. The amounts range from $50 million for the Anchorage School District to $48,000 for the small Pelican School District, which has 16 students.

Anchorage Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt sent a letter to parents on the last day of the school year Monday, saying that while he was “grateful to our legislators for recently voting to fund public education, I want to manage expectations around what what an increase in funding would mean.”

Health care, labor and maintenance costs have risen, he said, and the Anchorage School District will still face a substantial shortfall next year with the temporary funds. Bryantt said a spending plan would be drawn up to decide how the one-time funds would be allocated.

Anchorage schools have struggled to recruit and retain teachers, a statewide problem, and many experienced educators have retired or quit.

The Kenai Peninsula Township School District will receive an additional $12 million. Superintendent Clayton Holland said he was grateful for the additional funding and that it would allow the district to hire 12 teachers and retain support staff.

“The downside is that we will be back at this next year, only with a much larger deficit since the COVID relief funds are gone,” he said.

Pools and theaters on the Kenai Peninsula that were scheduled to close can now remain open, he said, including the pool in Seward where Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby trained.

Next year, the district is slated to face another substantial shortfall with teacher positions back on the chopping block and services at risk. Holland said it was demoralizing for community members who were passionately advocating a permanent increase in education funding this year to see it fall short again.

“I think more than anything, it’s the morale of our people and the trust in the schools and ultimately also the trust in our state. I think they all go together and why is it really time to fix this problem,” she said.

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From across the state, educators and community members convened numerous public hearings during the legislative session. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students testified almost unanimously in favor of the permanent funding increase, describing what was at stake if more state dollars were not directed to schools: larger class sizes, the loss of experienced educators and staff members , the possible closure of beloved classes and programs

The final $175 million funding increase included in the budget was chosen by Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge after hearing from education officials on the Kenai Peninsula that that amount was what they needed to get through next year.

Administrators and education advocates told lawmakers they needed a permanent increase in school funding of about double that amount to offset the impacts of rising costs. The Legislature last substantially boosted the BSA in 2017, meaning inflation has effectively eroded funding for districts.

“But having said that, we are going to use these dollars wisely and invest in the districts so they can get through another year,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators.

State funding for rural Alaska schools, in particular, has long been contentious. In 2007, US District Court Judge Sharon Gleason found that because of the consistent poor performance of some districts, the state was failing in its constitutional duty to oversee local educational services.

A year-long legal battle culminated in the 2012 Moore settlement, which required some additional funding and additional state oversight of the lowest-performing school districts. The Coalition for Education Equity of Alaska, a nonprofit organization that advocates for adequate and equitable school funding, was involved in that lawsuit against the state.

Sarah Sledge, executive director of the coalition, said the one-time school funding “is a Band-Aid, it may be a lifeline, but it’s not enough.” She said it would be a serious undertaking, but with rising costs and existing resources proving inadequate, another legal challenge against the state could be on the horizon, adding: “It’s definitely on the table.”

In addition to their challenges, school districts will soon be asked to do more. The Alaska Reads Act, which narrowly passed the Legislature last year, requires additional reading intervention programs and will go into effect in July. Sledge said it would be a drudgery, and he doesn’t see adequate resources currently being allocated to achieve his goals of having all Alaskan students read proficiently by age 9.

When the Legislature passed the reading bill in the final days of the 2022 session, it agreed to boost the BSA by a paltry $30, less than 1% of the $5,930 per student allocation, despite the fact that education advocates in They said at the time that could leave schools without the resources needed to implement the new requirements in the bill.

Alaskan students have regularly ranked near the bottom of the nation on standardized tests. House Republicans argued during the legislative session that academic performance would not necessarily improve with more school funding, signaling support for a separate measure that would instead increase funding for homeschooling and encourage the opening of more charter schools.

Scott Ballard, superintendent of the Yupiit school district, said a “flawed philosophy” was being promoted nationally, and now statewide, about the value of pushing more academic work on students without more resources: “If kids don’t are good, you better do more than what is already failing.

The 500-student district was hit by a sharp rise in fuel prices that are not expected to drop anytime soon. In 2022, it cost $570,000 to heat its three schools in Tuluksak, Akiak, and Akiachak. In 2023, heating costs have increased 55% to $886,000 and are projected to rise again to $894,000 next year.

The district will get $1.2 million from the one-time funding increase, which Ballard said would allow administrators to pay their bills this year and continue to limp. But he echoed the state’s urban superintendents who said a stable and predictable increase in school funding was essential.

“We were in such a precarious situation with funding that we just didn’t know if we were going to be able to continue to operate our district for the benefit of our students,” Ballard said.

Bethel-based public radio station KYUK reported in September that the Yupiit school district is working to incorporate Yup’ik culture into everything it does. His three schools now operate on a subsistence calendar, where students take time off in the spring to hunt birds and in the fall to hunt elk.

“We want to make sure that their language and their cultures permeate the school system and really form the foundation of education, so that children can be more successful,” Ballard said in an interview Tuesday. “And that’s very challenging if you don’t have funds to keep your schools open, if you don’t have funds to keep your boilers running, then you can’t keep the lights on.”

The Lower Yukon School District, based in Mountain Village and serving 2,100 students in 11 schools, will receive $5 million of the increased funding. Superintendent Gene Stone said the additional funding would be significant and would help pay for raises negotiated with educators and help build new teacher housing.

“We pretty much spent our fund balance, so we definitely needed it,” he said.

The Bristol Bay County School District is set to receive an additional $225,000. Superintendent Bill Hill said administrators have already cut costs: high school staff have been cut, there are no dedicated music teachers for his two schools and no dedicated middle school teachers.

“We hope to keep our current programs, but there definitely won’t be any major projects,” he said of the funding increase.

The governor’s office said in a prepared statement in April that Dunleavy “recognizes that increased funding for education is needed to reduce the impact of inflation.” But his office declined to comment Tuesday whether Dunleavy would accept the full $175 million increase or reduce it in part. He has nearly three weeks after the bill is aired to decide.

“The bill has not been transmitted to the governor’s office,” Jeff Turner, a spokesman for Dunleavy, said by email Tuesday. “Once that happens, he will review the budget and determine what changes to make before signing it into law.”

The Alaska Governor’s veto power, the strongest in the nation, can be overridden only by a vote of three-fourths of the House and Senate.

For school administrators like Hill, the 2022 superintendent, there is hope that the governor will allow all additional school funds to pass through to the districts. But with the almost annual battle to get adequate resources to run the state’s public schools, Hill said there needs to be a philosophical shift in Alaska about education.

“We cannot continue to see education as an expense. Education is an investment,” she said. “If we don’t invest in our children, we are clearly stating that they are not a priority. And we have to find a way to make our children a priority, and we need to find a way to invest in our children and make education in Alaska the best it can be.”

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