By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

School funding supporters continue work in state Capitol


February 14, 2024

Supporters of education funding crowded a legislative committee room on Feb. 5, advocating for a permanent increase in the state funding formula for public schools.

Though the advocates were unified in their message to a joint meeting of House and Senate education committees, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Education Commissioner Deena Bishop don’t support a permanent increase to the school funding formula. Instead, they have proposed targeted investments in certain areas, such as charter schools.

Education administrators from across the state attempted to make the case that years of stagnant funding has damaged Alaska schools’ ability to hire and retain teachers — and that the high turnover rates are hurting Alaska’s students.

Lisa Parady, executive director for the Alaska Council of School Administrators, painted legislators a dire picture of hiring and retention woes. Department of Labor data shows teachers are leaving the state faster than they can be replaced.

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“We are struggling in the worst crisis Alaska has ever seen in terms of turnover. We can’t recruit teachers. Fundamentally, that’s very important to high quality instruction,” she said. “This is an emergency at a level that we have never seen before in Alaska.”

Roy Getchell, superintendent of the Haines Borough School District, said his district would have to spend down its reserves by half if the proposed budget is enacted, which would make it financially precarious.

“I think that we’re all walking toward the cliff. Some are already there. But we’re all on the way,” he said.

The Wrangell School District also has been relying on its reserves to balance its budget, lacking a permanent increase in the state’s per-student funding formula, which has not changed since 2017, and the expiration of federal pandemic relief aid.

Yukon-Koyukuk School District Chief Financial Officer Heather Heineken’s voice caught as she related that the neighboring Fairbanks North Star Borough School District may close two more schools and increase class sizes by about 15%. “I do have a stake in that as a family member,” she said. The district estimated class sizes could increase to 30 students per classroom in elementary school and 35 in high school.

In a Senate majority coalition press conference the day after the committee hearing, lawmakers said the funding formula increase that it proposed last year is now too low.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican and teacher, said that to keep districts from making cuts and taking educational opportunities away from kids, the increase needs to be more than $680 per base student. That’s what legislators approved as a one-time boost last year, but which the governor vetoed in half.

“Costs have increased. Costs for energy, costs for transportation. Insurance costs have skyrocketed, putting immense pressure on district budgets, and ultimately leaving less money available for the actual educating of our children,” Bjorkman said.

“There’s no sugarcoating. That’s the math. When you get bills, and the bills come due, these school districts have to have money in the bank to pay those bills. They don’t get to go and raise revenue or run a deficit to operate every year.”

Bishop, who had supported more state funding when she was superintendent at Anchorage schools, told legislators she does not now support an increase to the formula, but rather a change to it. She said schools need investment, but it should be targeted.

“If it’s teachers, let’s invest in teachers if that’s the need. If it’s our smaller districts dealing with energy, let’s crack the energy nut,” she said.

The governor, who opposes a permanent increase in state funding without other provisions included, such as boosting charter schools, also supports paying bonuses directly to teachers. In a press conference on Feb. 8, he defended the strategy, which education administrators have said is insufficient to meet their needs.

“I would bet my retirement, if you just put money into (the funding formula), there’ll be no change in performance. Because we’ve done that year after year,” he said. “Why don’t we target it to the problem we know we have: classroom teachers and retaining them. What’s wrong with that idea?”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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