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Anchorage legislators get an earful on education

Jerzy Shedlock

Alaskans young and old packed the municipal assembly chambers at Z.J. Loussac Public Library on Saturday to relay their concerns for the upcoming legislative session to Anchorage area lawmakers. The overwhelming majority of people who had the chance to speak argued for thawing an education funding freeze causing cuts in classrooms statewide, especially in Anchorage, home to Alaska’s largest school district.

Teachers argued cuts are affecting their ability to instruct ever-growing classrooms. School therapists said the most vulnerable aren’t getting the attention they require. Students told the lawmakers that they are worth the investment. Each brief three-minute presentation on a perceived crumbling public education system was followed by applause.

The state’s Base Student Allocation, the number of dollars school districts receive per student, has remained steady at $5,680 for the last three years. According to an October 2013 legislative report requested by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, several of the largest school districts in the state -- Anchorage, Fairbanks North Star Borough, Juneau, Kodiak Island Borough and Matanuska-Susitna Borough -- reported staffing cuts between fiscal years 2011 and 2014. The decreases included certified staff such as administrators and teachers as well as so-called “classified” positions such as janitors and supervisors. And in places like Mat-Su, cuts are still required due to flat classroom funds that must serve an expanding student population.

“We haven’t increased education funding in years, so what we saw today was people getting angry about the situation,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, after more than three hours of testimony. “People are frustrated about the continued flat funding of education, and they’re not seeing a commitment from the Legislature to try and fix that.”

Lack of education funding ‘disrespectful’

Alongside the arguments for increased education spending were concerns about dire economic times, here and Outside. Alaska legislators have acknowledged the state’s new fiscal reality, as there are few big-ticket items among the 50-plus bills that have been pre-filed for the legislative session that starts this month.

Alaska is facing a budget deficit in excess of $2 billion, a shortfall that’s prompted Gov. Sean Parnell to propose dipping into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, one of the state’s most protected savings accounts.

Still, “sustainability” seems to be the go-to buzzword among legislators. One citizen who testified, Brad Keithley, sat on the state’s Sustainable Education Task Force, whose recent report came under criticism for its “stunningly underwhelming” conclusions. The task force was expected to help determine school funding levels but came back simply saying Alaska is spending too much. During Saturday’s gathering, Keithley testified that lawmakers are taking money away from kids for “things we don’t need.” He didn’t outright endorse increased funding but encouraged creating programs consistent with a sustainable budget.

Others not appointed to a state task force argued the money is there; it’s just a matter of priorities.

Pamela Lloyd, who said she’s lived in the state for 32 years, argued against flat funding, lamenting that education is viewed as a partisan issue. It’s greed from side interests grabbing up education dollars, she said, and teachers and teachers’ unions are attacked to take money away from future Alaskans.

“The lack of funding (to education) is disrespectful to Alaskans and Alaskan students,” said Lloyd, an occupational therapist working for the Anchorage School District but nearing retirement. She said her interests are selfless; she’s worried about the future workforce.

Joe Banta -- a parent, school volunteer and one of a handful of speakers who weren’t employed by or enrolled in an Alaska school -- said he’s a product of the Alaska school system before oil money. Decades ago, he received an adequate education despite living in a state that hadn’t yet found wealth, he said. Banta argued Alaska’s currently a wealthy state that refuses to improve education.

“The state’s saying is ‘North to the Future,’” Banta said. “We need to invest in the future.”

Even students themselves came out to testify, sharing stories of negative impacts on school resource and support groups due to staffing cuts. More than 200 district employees lost their jobs due to budget shortfalls last school year, and 600 more could be cut over the next two years. Students argued that the Anchorage School District’s goals set forth in Destination 2020 -- its comprehensive, multiyear plan to increase student achievement -- aren't possible if students lack needed resources. The school district fell short of its yearly proficiency goals for the 2012-2013 school year.  

“The power is in your hands to raise the BSA,” one Begich Middle School eighth grader told lawmakers. “Do your jobs.”

‘They know the truth’

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said one takeaway from the hours of testimony Saturday was that the public has caught on, now more than ever, about waste in the state capital budget.

They’re mad about legislators spending millions on new digs in downtown Anchorage. They’re mad about continued investment in a bridge that may never pay for itself and about a Southcentral dream dam that’s wasted decades of state funding.

“They know the truth,” Josephson said. “We have the resources to adequately fund public education, but the (legislative) majority won’t do it.”

Sen. Wielechowski echoed his fellow Democrat’s views. He said it’s absolutely possible to raise the BSA. It’s just a matter of priorities, he said.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage, said she didn’t know if raising the base student allocation was possible. She acknowledged that during caucus meetings, it’s been hard to finish without “talking about preparing our students for the workforce.” Still, economic concerns and budget balancing will be a big challenge as legislators work through their list of priorities, she said.

“We need to figure out how we ensure our students get a good education in a time of budget challenges,” she said.

Odds and ends

A few other topics stuck out amid the continuous flow of arguments for increased education funding:

• House Bill 77 is controversial legislation that would streamline permitting for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. In its current form -- with imprecise language opening the door to interpretation -- it drew dozens Kenai Peninsula residents to public forums in early December to speak in opposition.

• Senate Bill 64, introduced during last year’s legislative session, would establish the Alaska Sentencing Commission. The commission would be made up of judges, legislators, commissioners and community members to review and make recommendations for improving Alaska’s criminal justice system. Another section of SB 64 would allow people who have lost their driving privileges to use a limited license if they consent to monitoring while going through treatment.

• House Bill 139 would expand current antidiscrimination statutes to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Similar state provisions currently prohibit discrimination based upon race, religion and physical or mental disability, among other characteristics.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms.