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New Anchorage coalition calls for increased education funding

Tegan Hanlon
Bill Roth

A new Anchorage coalition joined the call Monday in asking the Alaska Legislature to increase public school funding by more than four times what the governor has proposed, a demand echoed by Democrats in Juneau.

Members of Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, a newly formed group, advocated at an afternoon news conference for a series of three annual raises to the base student allocation, a per-student payment that funds 57 percent of the Anchorage School District's operating budget.

Supporters say the increases -- $400 for fiscal year 2015 and a $125 bump for the following two -- would stabilize a school system shaken each year by an unpredictable state budget. It would reverse some education jobs and programs lost after three years when funding stayed flat but inflation did not, said Pat Galvin, a member of the coalition and former Alaska Commissioner of Revenue.

"We are in a crisis mode and that is why we have come together as parents, as school board members, as Assembly members to say that now is the time for action," Galvin said Monday at the news conference, held in the children's section of the Loussac Library. "We all have high expectations for our children. We have high expectations for our schools and we are here to say that the state needs to fund those schools so that they can reach the expectations that we set for them."

The Anchorage School District has already voted on a budget for the upcoming school year that eliminates 200 positions. While 44 positions were cut because of the decreased enrollment, the rest were eliminated in anticipation of a $23 million funding shortfall and a general fund budget of $567.6 million.

But the actual impact of state funding won't be felt until a final state budget is approved by the Legislature in the next few weeks.

Gov. Sean Parnell said in an interview Monday that the school district's cuts had been done "prematurely" and "generated a lot of fear."

"Quit scaring everybody, this happens every year," he said. "Every school district knows that we act accordingly to make education a priority, but also to make sure school districts are accountable."

Parnell has asked the Legislature to pass what his office is calling a "modest" increase to base student allocation of $85 this year and $58 the next two, an increase similar to the recently approved public employee contracts of about 1.5 percent and 1 percent, said Sharon Leighow, the governor's spokeswoman.

The governor's omnibus education bill is in the House and Senate finance committees this week where legislators can vote to amend funding levels. Parnell predicted the Legislature will pass an education budget "higher than what I proposed and lower than what they proposed."

This month, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, attempted to raise per-student allocation by $404 for the first year and link it to inflation rate for the next two years, but her amendment was rejected in the Senate Education Committee. Gardner said the state's current year-to-year funding is crippling to schools' planning.

"If you're a business you expect to have a plan," she said. "Every business should and we don't allow schools to be run that way. They have a business office, but we don't tell them ahead of time what they're going to get."

The Anchorage School District operates on a different budget cycle than the state, bound by the city charter to give a budget proposal to the Assembly by March 1, said Tam Agosti-Gisler, school board president. The district anticipates funding levels before the Legislature discusses dollar figures, cuts positions and, if funding allows, brings them back, she said. "So it's a big conundrum every year."

Friday marked the deadline for principals to alert 200 staff that their jobs may be eliminated, said Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association.

"This unfortunately does a terrific amount of emotional damage," he said. "There's no way that it doesn't feel like to the employee that the principal is sitting down and saying we have to pick the five least valuable people in the building and you're one of them. It's just a really draining thing. It breaks up camaraderie."

Holleman said the basic student allocation would have to be raised by at least $250 for the district to delay the planned cuts. For the past three years the state has allocated $5,680 per student. The district has reduced its work force by 419 positions over the past four years. Last year, the district did not cut classroom instruction, but reduced instructional support, building administration, building support and central support services.

Great Alaska Schools Anchorage calculated that a $400 increase would cost the state about $80 million in additional spending, said Alison Arians, a coalition member and a legislative board member for Rabbit Creek Elementary School's Parent Teacher Association. This dollar amount, she said, was small compared to the $17 billion in the state's total budget reserves.

"The budget reserves were set up to allow stable funding during lean years. We do have the resources to fully fund our schools," she said.

The Anchorage School District and Anchorage Assembly have passed resolutions in support of increased educational funding.

Members of the Great Alaska Schools Anchorage plan to travel to Juneau this week to lobby, for a second time, on behalf of the $400 increase and will hold a rally Saturday at Loussac Library from noon to 1 p.m.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com