JUNEAU — Alaska school administrators are celebrating the $175 million in extra public school funding in this year’s state budget but warn that they’ll again face large deficits next year — even if Gov. Mike Dunleavy decides against vetoing some of the additional funds.
Permanently increasing the Base Student Allocation, the state’s per-student funding formula, was a top priority for many in the Legislature this year. School districts across the state reported being in crisis after six years of essentially flat funding, high inflation and the end of federal COVID-19 relief.
The Senate passed legislation this month to increase the BSA by $680 at a cost of $175 million, but the bill stalled in the House. A last-minute effort to pass the Senate’s measure was thwarted by the Republican-led House majority, which had been skeptical of permanently increasing public school funding this year without a thorough look at the school funding formula.
As a compromise, lawmakers instead approved a school funding boost just for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The bipartisan Senate majority touted that as the state’s largest single-year increase in school funding outside the formula.
School superintendents and education advocates said the temporary school funding would help districts survive, but it would not address their structural deficits. The funding comes at the tail end of their annual budgeting process, and administrators are wary of paying for ongoing costs in case the same level of school funding is not approved next year.
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The state Department of Education and Early Development published a funding formula online showing how much each school district would receive from the $175 million. The amounts range from $50 million for Anchorage School District down to $48,000 for the tiny Pelican School District, which has 16 students.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt sent a letter to parents on the final day of the school year Monday, saying that while he was “grateful to our legislators for recently voting to fund public education, I do want to manage the expectations around what an increase in funding would mean.”
Health care, labor and maintenance costs have increased, he said, and the Anchorage School District would still face a substantial deficit next year with the temporary funding. Bryantt said a spending plan would be devised to decide how the one-time funding would be allocated.
Anchorage schools have struggled to recruit and retain teachers — a problem across the state — with many experienced educators retiring or resigning.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is set to receive an additional $12 million. Superintendent Clayton Holland said he was appreciative of the extra funding, which would allow the district to hire 12 teachers and retain support staff.
“The downside is that we’re back to this again next year, only with a much larger deficit as the COVID relief funding is gone,” he said.
Kenai Peninsula pools and theaters that were slated for closure can now stay open, he said, including the pool in Seward where Olympic gold medalist Lydia Jacoby trained.
Next year, the district is slated to face another substantial deficit with teacher positions again on the chopping block and services at risk. Holland said it was demoralizing for community members who passionately advocated for a permanent education funding increase this year to see it again fall short.
“I think more than anything, it’s the morale of our people and the trust in schools, and ultimately, the trust in our state as well. I think those all go hand in hand and why it’s really time to fix this issue,” he said.
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From across the state, educators and community members called during the legislative session for numerous public hearings. Teachers, administrators, parents and students testified almost unanimously in favor of the permanent funding boost, describing what was at stake without more state dollars going to schools: larger class sizes, the loss of experienced educators and staff members, potential shuttering of beloved classes and programs.
The final $175 million funding increase included in the budget was chosen by Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge after hearing from education officials on the Kenai Peninsula that that amount was what they needed to make it through this coming year.
Administrators and education advocates told lawmakers that they needed a permanent school funding increase of around twice that amount to catch up from the impacts of rising costs. The Legislature last substantially boosted the BSA in 2017, meaning inflation has effectively eroded funding for districts.
“But having said that, we are going to use these dollars wisely and invest in districts to get them through another year,” said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators.
State funding for Alaska’s rural schools, in particular, has long been contentious. In 2007, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason found that due to the consistently poor performance of some districts, the state was falling short of its constitutional duty to provide oversight of local education services.
A yearslong legal battle culminated in the 2012 Moore settlement, which required some additional funding and additional state oversight of the lowest-performing school districts. The Coalition for Education Equity of Alaska — a nonprofit that champions adequate and equitable school funding — was involved in that lawsuit against the state.
Sarah Sledge, the coalition’s executive director, said that the one-time school funding “is a Band-Aid — it’s maybe a lifeline, but it’s not sufficient.” She said it would be a serious undertaking, but with rising costs and existing resources proving inadequate, another legal challenge against the state could be on the horizon, adding, “It’s definitely on the table.”
Adding to their challenges, school districts will soon be asked to do more. The Alaska Reads Act, which narrowly passed the Legislature last year, requires additional reading intervention programs and is set to go into effect in July. Sledge said that would be a heavy lift, and she doesn’t see adequate resources currently allocated to achieve its goals of getting all Alaska students reading proficiently by the age of 9.
When the Legislature passed the reading bill in the final days of the 2022 session, it agreed to boost the BSA by a paltry $30, less than 1% of the $5,930-per-student allocation, even though education advocates at the time said that could leave schools without the resources needed to implement the new requirements in the bill.
Alaska students have regularly scored in the bottom of the nation in standardized tests. House Republicans argued during the legislative session that academic performance would not necessarily improve with more school funding, and they indicated support for a separate measure that would instead increase home-school funding and encourage more charter schools to open.
Scott Ballard, superintendent of the Yupiit School District, said there was “a faulty philosophy” being promoted nationally — and now at the state level — about the value of pushing more academic work onto students without more resources: “If kids aren’t doing well, you better do more of what is already failing.”
The 500-student district was hit by a sharp rise in fuel prices that are not expected to drop soon. In 2022, it cost $570,000 to heat its three schools in Tuluksak, Akiak and Akiachak. In 2023, heating costs jumped up by 55% to $886,000, and are projected to rise again to $894,000 next year.
The district is set to receive $1.2 million from the one-time funding boost, which Ballard said would allow administrators to pay their bills this year and to limp on. But he echoed superintendents in urban parts of the state who said that a stable and predictable school funding increase was essential.
“We were in such a precarious situation with funding that we just didn’t know if we were going to be able to continue operating our district for the benefit of our students,” Ballard said.
Bethel-based public radio station KYUK reported in September that the Yupiit School District is working to incorporate Yup’ik culture into everything it does. Its three schools now operate on a subsistence calendar, where students take time off in spring to hunt birds and in the fall to hunt moose.
“We want to make sure that their language and their cultures permeate the school system and it really forms the basis of the education, so that the kids can be more successful,” Ballard said in an interview Tuesday. “And that’s very challenging if you don’t have funds to keep your schools open, if you don’t have funds to keep your boilers operating, then you can’t keep the lights on.”
The Lower Yukon School District — headquartered in Mountain Village and encompassing 2,100 students over 11 schools — is set to receive $5 million from the funding boost. Superintendent Gene Stone said that extra funding would be significant and would help pay for negotiated raises with educators and help to construct new teacher housing.
”We pretty much spent out our fund balance, so we definitely needed it,” he said.
The Bristol Bay Borough School District is set to receive an extra $225,000. Superintendent Bill Hill said administrators had already reduced costs: High school staff has been cut, there are no dedicated music teachers for its two schools or any dedicated middle-school teachers.
“We hope to maintain our current programs but there definitely will not be any significant projects,” he said of the funding boost.
The governor’s office said through a prepared statement in April that Dunleavy “acknowledges an increase in education funding is needed to reduce the impact of inflation.” But his office declined to comment Tuesday on whether Dunleavy would accept the entire $175 million increase, or partially reduce it. He has nearly three weeks once the bill is transmitted to decide.
“The bill has not been transmitted to the governor’s office,” Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner said by email Tuesday. “Once that happens he will review the budget and determine what if any changes to make before signing it into law.”
The Alaska governor’s veto power — the strongest in the nation — can be overridden only with a vote of three-quarters of the House and Senate.
For school administrators like Hill, the 2022 superintendent of the year, there is hope that the governor will allow all the extra school funding to pass onto the districts. But with the near-annual battle to get adequate resources to operate the state’s public schools, Hill said there needs to be a philosophical shift in Alaska about education.
“We can’t continue to look at education as an expense. Education is an investment,” he said. “If we do not invest in our children, we are clearly stating that they are not a priority. And we’ve got to find a way to make our children a priority, and we need to find a way to invest in our children, and to make education in Alaska the best it can be.”