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Education

Alaska Legislature boosts funding for schools and university

Public schools and the state university system will receive funding boosts under the state operating and capital budgets that the Alaska Legislature passed this weekend.

Gov. Bill Walker still must approve the budgets. But his press secretary said Monday that the governor had no plans to veto the education-related funding that legislators agreed on. That means the state will contribute an additional $10 million to the University of Alaska's operating budget next academic year — UA's first funding boost after four years of cuts. Alaska's school districts will divide a $20 million increase after receiving the same amount of per-student funding in the current school year as they did the year prior.

While education officials welcomed the funding increases, the additional money will not completely close budget gaps or reverse years of staff cuts.

Still, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said she was thankful that schools did not have to withstand a second year of flat funding.

"It's good that we're moving into this summer a lot different than we were last year," she said in an interview Monday.

K-12 funding

Under the capital budget passed by legislators, Alaska's 53 school districts and Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka will split an additional $20 million next school year, or a nearly 2 percent increase from the current year. The increase will be a one-time grant, and slightly less than the permanent, $100 boost to the state's per-student spending formula that many House majority members have pushed.

The Legislature also passed a separate bill that allows for a $30 million increase to school funding in the 2019-2020 school year.

The money will be allocated based on the state's per-student spending formula.

The Anchorage School District, the state's largest school district, will receive the biggest chunk: roughly $5.5 million more next school year, according to Jim Anderson, the district's chief financial officer.

The district will revisit the budget it crafted for 2018-19 to account for the additional funding, Bishop said.

"While it's not going to make us whole, as compared to the costs, we are looking at a different picture now," Bishop said. "What can we provide to our school district that's going to move us forward?"

The Anchorage School Board had approved a $559 million general fund budget in February for next school year that was based on flat funding. Flat funding paired with increased costs drove an anticipated $13 million budget gap, district administrators said. The Board partially plugged that gap with $4 million in savings and the rest through cuts, including the elimination of classroom teaching positions.

Bishop said the district could allocate the new money in many different ways. It could bring back teaching positions, custodians or counselors. It could use it to close part of the budget gap instead of using its savings. It could put it toward its contract with the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, which is currently being negotiated.

The district and School Board will discuss where to allocate the money at the Board's 4 p.m. work session next Monday, Bishop said.

UA funding

The state's annual operating budget approved by Alaska lawmakers includes a $10 million funding boost for the state university system, or about a 3 percent increase from the current year, bringing the total to about $327 million.

That's about $50 million less than UA received in the 2013-14 academic year and about $14 million less than what university leaders said they needed to rebuild UA's capacity and grow.

In November, UA President Jim Johnsen told regents that in the past four years the university system had cut 1,183 employees and its enrollment had shrunk by roughly 5,000 students.

Johnsen said in a statement Monday that he appreciated the funding increase and believed it represented a significant show of support from the Legislature.

"In passing this increase, legislators voiced their support for our university and our strategic priorities — economic and workforce development, research and innovation, and student success," he said. "This renewed support for the university recognizes the strength of our faculty and campuses, our position as the world's leader in Arctic research, and the critical role we play in expanding opportunities for Alaskans."

The UA Board of Regents will meet May 31 to discuss and decide on a budget for next academic year, according to UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham.

Other education funding approved by the Legislature includes:

— $2 million for maintenance, renovation and repairs at the university system.
— $24.2 million for schools' major maintenance projects.
— An additional $6 million over the next two fiscal years for preschool grants.

Walker's press secretary, Austin Baird, said in a statement Monday that Alaska's students, parents and educators deserve certainty that schools will be funded in a timely fashion each year.

"Governor Walker supports an increase to the Base Student Allocation, however, the funding in this budget is the equivalent of a BSA increase for the next two years — providing certainty to our administrators and ensuring that no teachers will receive pink slips this year or next," he said. "At a time when the Department of Education and Early Development is asking districts to do more to close the achievement gap, the additional resources approved by the Legislature will provide districts a measure of stability needed to plan for the work ahead."

Baird said many procedural steps remain before the budget reaches Walker's desk for final approval.

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