The Arctic Sounder

With hope fading for additional state education funding, Alaska’s rural school districts prepare to make difficult cuts

Rural school administrators said this week that they are preparing to make significant cuts following the Alaska Legislature’s failure to override Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s veto of a $200 million education bill.

Many rural districts say they now face developing budgets for the coming year while experiencing spikes in operating expenses, record staff vacancies and mounting deferred maintenance costs.

The education bill — Senate Bill 140, which included the largest boost to public school funding in state history — could have helped rural districts avoid painful choices they are now considering for next year, administrators said — including eliminating sports teams, teacher and staff positions and student nutrition programs.

In Northwest Alaska, this could mean losing a beloved activity: basketball. The Northwest Arctic Borough School District is considering saving over $1.7 million by cutting sports and other activities, one of their many ideas for balancing the budget deficit, according to Margaret Hansen, president of the district Board of Education

In Sleetmute, a village in Western Alaska along the upper Kuskokwim River, the lack of funding means putting off replacing the community’s partially condemned school with a roof in imminent danger of collapsing, according to district superintendent Madeline Aguillard. Students are still attending in a portion of the school building that’s safe because they have nowhere else to go, said Aguillard.

Senate Bill 140 initially passed in both chambers of the Legislature with broad bipartisan support. It included a $680 increase to the Base Student Allocation — an amount that many school administrators said was just half of the amount needed to address their operating needs and keep pace with inflation.

[Alaska lawmakers see no clear path to a new school funding bill]


The governor said he vetoed the bill because it did not include some of his priorities, including teacher bonuses and provisions for charter schools. The veto override failed as many school districts around the state were developing their budgets for the coming school year.

In a statement, a Dunleavy spokesperson said there’s still time to pass an education bill this year, and that the governor “has stated repeatedly that he supports increasing funding for education, especially given inflationary pressures. At the same time, funding should be targeted to where it will have the greatest impact.”

A number of rural districts reached for this story said that without the promise of additional money, they will struggle to cover even basic operating costs. Many of them rely solely on state funding to support their schools.

“We’re down to the bare bones,” said Aguillard.


Most school districts around the state have reported increases in operating costs and growing budget deficits over the last several years. In rural Alaska, the cost of living is already astronomical — and growing.

In the Northwest Arctic, expenses for essentials such as heating, electricity, shipping and food have surged by 28% since 2017, the last time when Alaska’s public schools received a significant funding boost, said district superintendent Terri Walker.

“Because of subsistence and our culture and background, we’re resilient and able to continue living here, but it’s so hard with the prices. They are 60% higher than Anchorage, you know,” said Hansen, the Board of Education president.“The freight costs are so, so high.”

In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Yupiit school district is also facing rising costs of utilities — including water, sewer and electricity, according to district superintendent Scott Ballard.

“We’re paralyzed by the lack of systematic funding,” he said. “It costs 50% more now than it did five years ago just to keep the lights on, just to keep up with the cost of health care.”

Ballard said a BSA increase of $680 “wouldn’t even cover our deficit for next year.” Amid continued uncertainty in the Legislature, Ballard said the district was faced with planning for no additional funding.

“We can’t make plans. We can’t hire teachers. We can’t offer contracts for vacant positions. We can’t order essential equipment that we need for next year that has to come by barge,” he said.

The Kuspuk school district experienced “an incredible hike” in electricity costs last year, Aguillard, the district superintendent, said.

To save money on heating, the district considered switching to wood-burning stoves — “but that depends on a huge amount of manpower,” Aguillard said. “And frankly, we don’t have that.”

[After education bill veto override fails, major cuts to Anchorage schools back on table]

Petersburg School District administrators are not planning on any funding increases this year either, district superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter said, especially after the governor vetoed half of a one-time public education funding boost last June.

“At this point, we are budgeting for flat funding,” Kludt-Painter said. “I will not make an assumption about any funding increase at this point, especially not based on what happened last year and also now what’s happening this year.”

Because the district also has to deal with rising fixed costs — shipping costs in the case of the Petersburg School District, located on an island — administrators are now forced to look into cutting staff and programs, Kludt-Painter said.


“And that means kids are impacted,” Kludt-Painter said. “It is not the right direction.”

In the emailed statement, a spokesman for Gov. Dunleavy said, “No school district – rural or urban – has ever known the exact amount of funding they will receive from the state until the operating and capital budgets are passed and signed into law. That process is usually completed in June. This year is no different. What was different this year was that the House Majority decided to start discussing education from the very beginning of the session rather than waiting until the final days.”

Cuts to staff, student nutrition and basketball?

Like urban Alaska districts, many rural districts are considering upping the student-teacher ratio, increasing class sizes, combining grade levels and cutting positions and programs.

Northwest Arctic Borough School District officials are thinking of reducing funding for sports and student activities, which include volleyball, track, Eskimo Olympics, and basketball.

“The main one is basketball,” Hansen said. “Our students – that’s what drives them to go to school, you know, sometimes the motivation they need to stay in school and to be healthy.”

The Kuspuk school district is considering cutting multiple staff positions, combining some grade levels and cutting the cross-country team — a decision that superintendent Aguillard said felt painful to even consider.

“I absolutely don’t want to cut any opportunity for students,” she said, adding that she continually hears from families and the community how important sports are. The district currently offers no electives for its students, and employs just two administrators.

Years of flat funding has meant the district has struggled to hire enough staff for each of its schools — about 20% of its teaching positions are vacant, Aguillard said. She said she’s had to rely on remote instructors in some cases.


“Online learning is quite expensive, so this doesn’t save any money,” she said. “We really want in-person, live teachers in our classrooms.”

The Yupiit school district is “looking at every item in our budget to see if there’s a place where we can save money,” superintendent Ballard said. “But when 80% of our budget goes to salaries and benefits, what do you do?” he said.

Also on the table as a potential cut is a program that helps provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students, Ballard said. The federal government reimburses some — but not all — of the cost of that program.

The district spent over $300,000 of its general fund last year on that program, and Ballard said the cut would be hard on many students and their families.

“That’s a big incentive for a lot of students to come to school,” he said.

A recent, yearlong backlog at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance caused many families around the state to go months without federal food stamp and other public assistance benefits. The crisis took a particular toll in rural Alaska, which generally has fewer food banks and pantries to fill the gap.

“It’s so important for them to come to school and have a meal and be ready to learn,” said Hansen with the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, which is also considering cutting the free meal program, he said.

Depleting emergency funds

School districts are also eyeing their emergency funds. In rural Alaska, that means spending money reserved for fixing broken infrastructure and dealing with weather emergencies — things that come up.

Last year, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District district had to spend close to $1 million to fix water and sewer leaks and address failing fire panel systems, Hansen said.

Now administrators might have to use all of the fund balance, $4.7 million, to cover their budget costs, Hansen said.

“What are we going to do when we have an emergency?” Hansen said. “Those situations are real, you know. … Not only do we have to teach our children, but we have to operate and maintain the facilities that were built many years ago.”

Dillingham’s school district is also planning to dip into its emergency savings for the first time in years in order to avoid cuts and still be able to offer raises to teachers, said Amy Brower, the district’s superintendent.


“That’s not a permanent solution,” she said.

Perspectives on student performance

Rural school administrators said they were thankful to the lawmakers who had advocated for an increase in public school funding — but deeply frustrated that the education bill did not pass.

“It seems to me that our state government has forgotten the people it serves. It’s our children and Alaska’s future that’s being jeopardized,” Hansen said. ”It’s so hard to believe anymore when some of those legislators voted against (overriding the veto) but say they’re for education. It’s so disheartening.”

The way some legislators spoke about student performance also drew criticism from some rural school officials. During floor discussions prior to the veto override, several Republican lawmakers who supported the veto questioned investing money in schools with Alaska’s low test scores.

[Facing deadline, Alaska House advances bill to increase rural school internet speeds]

Ballard with the Yupiit school district said standardized testing was not the best or only way to measure student achievement, particularly in rural Alaska.


“We’re trying to design a system that is more aligned with Native ways of learning; that’s embedded in Native values, culture and language,” he said. “And when you don’t have a system that measures or values that, then what you have is people in Juneau or in other parts of Alaska who basically look at one dataset — standardized test scores — and say, ‘Oh my gosh, these kids all over Alaska are not thriving, and they’re not doing well.’ And I think that’s a mistake.”

Hansen pointed out that the way the districts’ performance is evaluated is not taking into account the technological disparities.

“It can take days for our students to take the test to which we cater determination on how well our students are learning,” Hansen said.

Aguillard said her students frequently get kicked out of the online system mid-test due to lagging internet connections, and are often forced to start their tests over multiple times.

“How can we talk about accountability when 100% of standardized tests are given online, but we don’t have reliable internet access in our schools?” she said.

Despite the frustration that many administrators said they were feeling, many said they were still heartened to see such impassioned pleas for improvements to public education in the Legislature.

“These last few years, it’s hard to feel that our kids aren’t being valued,” Kludt-Painter said, but added that a lot of driven and educated people in the state “remain committed to providing high-quality education to kids.”

“There is still time to pass an increase to the BSA this session,” a Dunleavy spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Education will certainly be funded this year.”

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman is a reporter covering health care, education and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in San Francisco before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.