Advocates for school funding hikes raise the heat on legislators

Richard Mauer
Supporters of more funding for public schools listen to testimony at the Senate Finance Committee hearing room in the Alaska State Capitol. Left to right are Alyse Galvin, Deena Mitchell, Mary Hakala and Kenny Powers. Hakala is from Juneau and the others are from Anchorage.
Richard Mauer
Deena Mitchell of Anchorage, testifying in support of greater funding for public schools, turns in petitions signed by 2,000 Alaskans to the Senate Finance Committee Thursday, April 10, 2014.
Richard Mauer
Alyse Galvin of Anchorage tells the Senate Finance Committee Thursday that rising graduation rates, pictured on the chart, are at risk if school funding does not improve, April 10, 2014.
Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- Public school advocates stepped up their pressure on the Legislature on Thursday, declaring at a Senate hearing that the House-passed education bill was too miserly and had to be expanded before the state can consider other reforms.

Barely concealing a political warning, Deena Mitchell, a co-founder of Great Alaska Schools Anchorage, told the Senate Finance Committee, "The bottom line is that Alaskans support our public schools. We want to see them fully staffed, and we can be quickly mobilized if there's a threat to children's education."

To make her point, Mitchell delivered a stack of petitions to the committee signed by 2,000 Alaskans from 30 communities.

"At Great Alaska Schools, we will do whatever it takes to make our legislators see that it is time to stop the cuts in our classrooms," Alyse Galvin, another Anchorage resident, said a few minutes later. "Until the funding is secure, it will be our top priority."

Mitchell, Galvin and other advocates opened public testimony on House Bill 278 in the Senate Finance Committee, the bill's first stop since its 29-11 passage in the House seconds before midnight Monday. The parents and other school advocates said the House bill fell far short of their demand that the primary per student funding formula -- the base student allocation -- be raised $400 in 2015 and $125 in each of the next two years.

The BSA, a relatively untouchable year-to-year appropriation, has been stuck at $5,680 since 2011, a fact widely blamed as the cause of school layoffs in Anchorage and around state.

The bill is a much modified version of the omnibus education bill submitted by Gov. Sean Parnell when he declared this to be the "Education Session" of the Legislature. Parnell provided an $85 BSA raise for the first year and $58 for the next two.

The House, in committee, boosted next year's BSA to $185, but removed a separate $25 million allocation, making the BSA boost effectively $85 again. Then, on the floor, the House added back $30 million as a one-time supplement outside the BSA but which followed the BSA formula, sending legislative staff scurrying to their spreadsheets to calculate how much the state was actually helping local schools. It was something like following the pea in a shell game.

Galvin said she heard legislators claim the bill raised the BSA by $306 -- the $30 million adding $121 to the bill's $185.

"That's political hogwash," she said. "While supporters of the bill try to lump in one-time funds as a BSA increase, they ignore the fact that the current bill is premised on eliminating existing funds, meaning that this phantom $121 increase in the BSA is only $21 of new money to the district budgets."

"Yes," she added, "we can follow the ball and see through the smoke and mirrors."

Several of the senators voiced sympathy with the parents but said the state was already helping education in many ways besides the BSA, such as paying for teacher pensions. Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said local governments also could do more. While many have tax caps, they were not taxing local residents to the legal limits, he said.

But Mitchell wasn't backing down in calling for an increased state effort.

"We are Alaskans who are asking you to prioritize education spending over other funding demands," she said.

Great Alaska Schools, an ad hoc organization, was created in Juneau about 10 years ago after another series of cutback to education, said Mary Hakala, one of the founders.

"We mobilized, we worked hard, the cuts stopped," Hakala testified. "It's exciting that now parents and citizens have remobilized."

Mitchell offered the assistance of many of those parents to work on education reform -- one of the original goals of Parnell in his omnibus bill. But the offer was conditional.

"For those legislators who want to see real education improvement, we ask you to take advantage of this movement of parents and enlist our help in identifying and implementing improvements. However, such a conversation can only happen if our schools are fully funded and fully staffed. If not, then any shortcomings in the system will be blamed entirely on lack of funding," Mitchell said.

During a break in the hearing, Mitchell and Galvin said that while they both had children in the Anchorage School District, they were concerned about public schools statewide.

"When I say our children, I mean the 139,000 kids across Alaska," Mitchell said.

"128,965," Galvin corrected.

"Many of those children have nobody to advocate for them," Mitchell said. "There are kids who cry at the end of the year because they are not going to be able to go to school anymore. That's where they get their meals, that's where they have adults who are consistent in their lives."

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