House budget would send extra $143,000 to Wrangell schools

The state budget plan adopted by the House last weekend includes an additional $143,000 in one-time funding for Wrangell schools, almost a 5% boost from a state aid formula that has not changed in five years.

The district has been relying heavily on federal pandemic relief money and reserves to fill budget holes the past couple of years, and plans to do the same for the 2022-2023 school year. District officials acknowledge it’s not a sustainable financial plan.

State funding to school districts is based on a per-student formula, and Wrangell has been hit hard by the loss of almost 20% of its pre-pandemic student count. The state’s formula funding covers about 60% of the school district’s more than $5 million operating budget.

“It will help fill the gap,” Schools Superintendent Bill Burr said of the $143,000.

However, the additional state funding, if approved by the Senate and the governor, would be only for the 2022-2023 school year. Lawmakers continue to debate a change to the formula in state statute, but supporters lack enough votes and the one-time $57 million appropriation may be the political compromise to help Alaska’s 54 school districts this next year.

The one-time payment is in the state operating budget bill approved by the House last Saturday. Senate consideration will come next. The Legislature faces a May 18 adjournment deadline.

Without a change to the formula, school districts “will have to go through this again” next year, Burr said last Thursday. Districts have been pushing lawmakers for several years to raise the funding formula.

Legislation to increase the formula is in the House Finance Committee, where Rep. Dan Ortiz supports the change. One challenge to convincing his colleagues, he said, is that some lawmakers believe spending more money on schools means less money for the popular Permanent Fund dividend. That is a tough perception to overcome, said Ortiz, who sits on the Finance Committee and represents Ketchikan and Wrangell.

Another House Finance member, Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson, believes much of the opposition to increasing state funding for schools comes from critics of public education who support vouchers to attend private schools or homeschooling. The critics don’t see the successes of public education, Josephson said.

It’s wrong to blame public schools for all the underlying issues that confront education, including family struggles, economic stress, inadequate housing and society’s shortcomings, he said. “Teachers are not magicians,” and cannot solve everything.

Opposition to increased state aid for school districts also disregards inflation since the formula last changed in 2017, Josephson said.

House Minority Leader Cathy Tilton, of Wasilla, opposed the budget bill and said during the House debate last Saturday there is no provision requiring the additional money be spent in classrooms. Most members of the Republican minority voted against the budget bill for multiple reasons.

Correct, there is no requirement that the additional state money go directly to the classrooms, responded majority coalition Rep. Harriet Drummond, of Anchorage. Schools are dealing with rising health care, maintenance and heating costs, Drummond said, putting a burden on district budgets that requires more funding.

House Finance Co-chair Rep. Neal Foster, of Nome, cited the tiny St. Mary’s School District in Western Alaska. It would receive about $148,000 in additional assistance under the one-time funding in the budget bill, Foster said, and he expects most of that money will go to pay the higher cost of heating fuel.

Juneau Rep. Andi Story, the sponsor of the bill to increase the funding formula in state law, said many opponents are too fixated on student test scores, rejecting more state financial aid because they believe test scores should be higher for all the money the state contributes.

Perhaps one-third of the Legislature believes public schools are not doing their job well enough, said majority coalition Rep. Bryce Edgmon, of Dillingham. “Education is the (biggest) political football of them all,” he said after a House Finance Committee hearing on school funding last Thursday.

“Continually, we have had folks asking state representatives for more money,” said Nikiski Rep. Ben Carpenter, adding he opposes more spending unless he sees better outcomes in the schools. “Every year, there’s always an excuse, always a justification for spending more on education,” the Kenai Peninsula Republican said at the House Finance Committee hearing.

The state budget for K-12 education at public schools is about $1.2 billion in the budget bill approved by the House, almost 25% of state spending on public services.

Separate from the budget bill is discussion among some lawmakers of sending additional state aid to school districts specifically to help with high heating fuel bills. “I think that’s probably outside the realm of possibility,” said Sitka Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. “But I could be surprised.”

The Anchorage Daily News contributed to this report.

 

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