Compass: Partisanship in Juneau blocks realistic fix for education

It's been two months since the end of the "Education Session" and one month since the school year's end. That's just long enough for many to turn their focus to enjoying Alaska's summer fishing and hiking or to cheering at their children's soccer and baseball games.

Apparently it's also just long enough for elected leaders to begin the work of convincing constituents that the session accomplished all that our public schools need.

These politicians are banking on short memories and voter apathy. It is time to prove them wrong.

We, the people of Great Alaska Schools, remain actively committed to advocating for the highest quality public education that our state can afford for each of its children. We encourage citizens to continue supporting strong public schools by engaging in elections and within school communities.

Great Alaska Schools spent the entire legislative session pleading for an increase in the base student allocation that would have returned per pupil funding to the same level as 2011 -- the last year the BSA was raised, and a year when our schools were showing marked improvements after several years of steady increases in funding. Our cause garnered huge public support, yet our efforts were strangely met with great resistance from many legislators. Doing everything in one's power to provide the means for a first-rate public education for all children should be a top priority because it's the foundation for both a healthy democracy and economy and is simply the right thing to do. It should be a no-brainer for anyone seeking election or re-election.

Winston Churchill said, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." Great Alaska Schools is proud of the many citizens who upheld their civic duty by calling, writing or emailing their elected representatives. The continuing growth of our grass-roots group gives us hope. We are excited to be involved with voter registration drives and with creating "community cafes" at our schools to engage more people in public education. Genuine communication brings real solutions.

We salute the Anchorage Assembly for truly listening to all of our testimony. They alleviated much of the Anchorage School District's remaining budget deficit and managed to do so without a property tax increase. We are grateful for the open lines of communication we have experienced with ASD leadership. At many levels leaders didn't just 'hear,' they truly listened. Indeed, many in Juneau worked with the best interests of our children and the future of the state at heart. Unfortunately, we found that party lines are too divisive and the caucus more powerful than the bipartisan voices of countless constituents. Too often, courage is in short supply.

Did everyone in power do the best they could for our public schools? No. We appreciate what was done and are heartened to see some offer a belated acknowledgement of many of our schools' successes. However, we also know the same people did not offer the support needed to secure enough funding for public education to prevent a fourth year of school budget cuts.

According to the ASD Chief Financial Officer Mark Foster, the district will still see a net reduction of 75.3 positions for the 2014-15 school year. ASD has lost teachers. Support services, including all types of counselors, administrative positions and $1.4 million in supplies, were cut. Expect student fees to increase substantially and for PTAs and other parent groups to be asked to provide even more of the basics. With only modest BSA increases approved for the next three years, an additional 700 positions are likely to be eliminated from the district.

As with everything impacted by inflation, education will cost more each year to get the same product. Legislators need to accept this reality, budget for it and prioritize education spending over other things. This year, while underfunding education, the Legislature approved a $270 million gamble on two Canadian companies to mine near Ketchikan. Alaska, does this accurately reflect our priorities?

Do we want to see battles for school funding continue every year? Do we want to see educator morale continue to decline? How productive is that? What lesson does that teach our children? With open minds and courage we, as both average citizens and elected leaders, can do better.

Valerie Veerman Buckendorf is a founding member of Great Alaska Schools. She attended K-12 in the Anchorage School District and is a former high school English teacher. She currently serves as Rabbit Creek Elementary's PTA president where her two children attend.



By VALERIE V. BUCKENDORF