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Compass: Alaska school funding should keep up with inflation

For the last three years, flat state funding to the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, has created a series of increasing cuts to our public schools. The disappointing results of this Legislative session will mean continued cuts and increasing class sizes in the Anchorage School District over the next three years.

While education and funding can be complex, the reason that flat funding causes ongoing cuts is simple: inflation.

The BSA lacks an automatic adjustment for inflation. This type of calculation is already embedded in the local tax cap and national Social Security benefits. Every person who works in a business or nonprofit knows that inflation must either be met by increased revenue or, over time, money will buy less. Since the BSA doesn't automatically account for inflation, if legislators choose not to raise the BSA each year, the education funding they provide will continue to buy less for our schools.

Until this year, Anchorage has been able to avoid cutting classroom teachers by making substantial cuts to administration and support staff in the past three years. These administrative cuts created so much room in the district's main office, there may soon be room for another charter school in the building. The district also negotiated conservative contracts with teachers and other staff, cheaper than the Municipality of Anchorage's new contracts.

This year, the inflationary pressure was simply too much. Along with continued cuts in administration and support, the district planned to eliminate 143 teaching positions to balance its budget.

This Legislative session, ASD and a broad citizen coalition brought a clear message to Juneau; our schools need a BSA increase of $400 this year and $125 for each of the next two years to make up for inflation and avoid teacher cuts.

By the end of the session, only about a third of that amount was appropriated for the next three years. This makes future cuts inevitable.

Worse, most of the new state money was in one-time grant funding that disappears after three years. The district has generally taken the conservative fiscal view that one-time grants or other limited funding streams should not be added to the operational base because when the funding goes away it creates a big hole in the budget. Instead, limited-time grant money should be used for worthy pilot programs or other special projects that end when the funding ends.

Therefore, the school board asked the district to focus limited-time state money on pilot programs that research shows can have the biggest impact on a child's academic success, such as pre-kindergarten programs, intensive K-3 literacy and summer programs.

Fortunately, the Anchorage Assembly and mayor voted to help by providing about $8 million in additional local support. The district agreed that this new money would restore teachers and kept its word, saving about 80 of the 143 teaching positions on the chopping block this year.

Unfortunately, the Legislature's plan for another three years of flat funding will guarantee future staff and teacher cuts. This will likely result in a teacher hiring freeze. As teachers leave, their positions will not be filled and class sizes will grow as a result.

The only way to avoid this cycle is for education funding to keep up with inflation, either through automatic formula increases or Legislative action to raise the BSA. The district appreciates the groundswell of support this year that allowed us to hire back many teachers and to fund some pilot programs to benefit our students. Hopefully, future efforts will yield a long-term sustainable solution to education funding in Anchorage and across the state.

Eric Croft is the president of the Anchorage School Board. He can be seen walking his children Shannon and Burke to school each morning in Spenard, along with the blond, energetic, village-mutt Alakanuk.



By ERIC CROFT