School districts call on Legislature for permanent funding increase next year

Alaska school administrators are welcoming the $175 million in additional one-time funding in this year’s state budget, but warn that they’ll again face large deficits next year.

Permanently increasing the base student allocation — the state’s per-student funding formula — was a top priority for many legislators 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 aid.

“The legislature has offered a spring bonus rather than a pay increase to an education system that sold all its furniture to break even the past number of years,” Wrangell Schools Superintendent Bill Burr said in an email to the Wrangell Sentinel.

“The one-time funding will allow the Wrangell schools to retain and postpone the fiscal cliff that is coming by another year,” Burr said. “We are grateful for the first real funding (increase) since 2017,” but it provides only short-term help.

The Senate passed legislation to permanently increase the funding formula by more than 11%, at a cost of $175 million, and also increase state funding for school bus services, but the bill stalled in the House in the final week of the legislative session that ended May 18. The Republican-led House majority was skeptical of permanently increasing public school funding without a thorough look at the formula.

Alaska students have regularly scored in the bottom of the nation in standardized tests. House Republicans argued that academic performance would not necessarily improve with more public school funding, and indicated support for a separate measure that would instead increase homeschool funding and encourage more charter schools to open.

As a compromise, lawmakers approved the $175 million funding boost just for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

School superintendents and education advocates said the temporary school funding would help districts survive but would not address their structural deficits.

The Department of Education published a funding breakdown showing how much each school district would receive from the $175 million. The amounts range from $50 million for the Anchorage School District down to $48,000 for the Pelican School District, which has 16 students. Wrangell would gain about $425,000 for the 2023-2024 school year.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is set to receive an additional $12 million. Superintendent Clayton Holland said he was appreciative of the extra funding, which would allow the district to hire 12 teachers and retain support staff.

“The downside is that we’re back to this again next year, only with a much larger deficit as the COVID relief funding is gone,” he said.

Kenai Peninsula pools and theaters that were slated for closure can now stay 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 deficit with teacher positions again on the chopping block and services at risk. Holland said it was demoralizing for community members who passionately advocated for a permanent education funding increase this year to see it again fall short.

“I think more than anything, it’s the morale of our people and the trust in schools, and ultimately, the trust in our state as well. I think those all go hand in hand and why it’s really time to fix this issue,” he said.

From across the state, educators and community members testified at numerous legislative hearings. Teachers, administrators, parents and students spoke almost unanimously in favor of the permanent funding boost, describing what was at stake without more state dollars going to schools: larger class sizes, the loss of experienced educators and staff members, potential shuttering of beloved classes and programs.

“These same items will continue to suffer as the Legislature will once again need to find a bill that can provide funding to education in 2024,” Burr said over the weekend. “The BSA help is only postponed for another battle of the same magnitude.”

Administrators and education advocates repeatedly told lawmakers this past session that they needed a larger, permanent school funding increase to catch up from the impacts of rising costs. The Legislature last substantially boosted the funding formula six years ago, during which time inflation has eroded district finances.

State funding for Alaska’s rural schools, in particular, has long been contentious. In 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason found that due to the consistently poor performance of some districts, the state was falling short of its constitutional duty to provide oversight of local education services.

A yearslong legal battle culminated in a 2012 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 that champions adequate and equitable school funding — was involved in that lawsuit against the state.

Sarah Sledge, the coalition’s executive director, said that the one-time school funding “is a band-aid — it’s maybe a lifeline, but it’s not sufficient.” She said another legal challenge against the state could be on the horizon, adding, “It’s definitely on the table.”

The Bristol Bay Borough School District is set to receive an extra $225,000. Superintendent Bill Hill said administrators had already reduced costs: High school staff has been cut, there are no dedicated music teachers for its two schools or any dedicated middle-school teachers.

The governor’s office said through a prepared statement in April that Dunleavy “acknowledges an increase in education funding is needed to reduce the impact of inflation.” But his office declined to comment May 23 on whether Dunleavy would accept the entire $175 million increase, or partially reduce it with a veto.

The Alaska governor’s veto power — the strongest in the nation — can be overridden only with a vote of three-quarters of the House and Senate.

The Wrangell Sentinel contributed to the reporting for this story.


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