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Senate education plan could cut hundreds more jobs statewide

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 28, 2017
  • Published March 28, 2017

The state Senate may propose cutting education spending by $60 million or more in Alaska, which could lead to the loss of 500 to 550 teaching and support positions statewide.

This does not include the University of Alaska, subject of a separate $16 million reduction, which is likely to lead to the loss of 160 university positions.

You haven't heard a lot about the K-12 cut because proponents have not offered details of their proposed 5 percent cut or dollar amounts to districts.

A $60 million cut would mean a reduction of $18 million for Anchorage schools, while Mat-Su would lose $8 million, Fairbanks would be reduced by $6 million and Kenai schools would see a $4 million loss, according to estimates from the state Education Department.

But Anchorage school officials said they still don't know if the 5 percent cut would mean a reduction to schools closer to $18 million or $27 million, as it would depend upon how the cut is structured. That would mean a job loss range in Anchorage of 160 to 270 positions.

An Anchorage School District school bus travels down Spenard Road in traffic in Anchorage on Dec. 2. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive 2016)

This is unrelated to the budget crunch that led the Anchorage district to propose cutting 120 jobs, 99 of them teaching positions, to deal with a $15 million gap.

For reasons that no one has explained, the Senate did not include this 5 percent education cut in its budget when it held a public hearing. Senators said they talked a lot about cutting 5 percent and everyone in Alaska should have known it was coming.

"I did announce when we had our public hearing that the public hearing was closed," Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman said Monday. He said people keep asking, "maybe hoping for a different answer, but the answer remains the same."

The Great Alaska Schools coalition sent a message to its supporters Tuesday urging that they ask the Senate for a different answer — a chance to give public testimony on the budget after legislators reveal what exactly they have in mind.

"When legislators make significant changes to bills after public testimony is complete, it appears to be designed to deliberately subvert scrutiny of their actions," the coalition said. "At the very least, it is disrespectful to the public and violates the trust between legislators and the Alaskans they represent."

Hoffman and his colleagues should welcome a public hearing on their education idea and explain how it relates to their overall goals of avoiding new taxes, cutting $750 million in unidentified state expenses over the next three years and drawing $2 billion a year from Permanent Fund earnings.

In the House, the Republicans offered the 5 percent education cut as a budget amendment, providing few details on the impact to schools across the state, but it was rejected by the Democratic-led majority. It's not clear how the differences will be worked out.

Meanwhile, another education plan in the Senate would reduce funding to school districts on the road system in cases where multiple schools are within 25 miles of each other and both have enrollment below 80 percent of capacity. This would create a financial incentive to close schools with low enrollment.

This proposal, Senate Bill 96, would reduce funding for Anchorage schools by about $35 million over the next four years, while Fairbanks schools could see a cut of about $16 million and the Mat-Su reduction would be about $23 million over four years. The total statewide reduction over that period would be about $180 million.

The Senate Education Committee had a hearing Tuesday on the bill, which contains a wide range of elements dealing with everything from bus driver pay to internet learning.

What we are missing from the Senate is a clear view of what it really wants to do about education, plugging in all of the major elements, from classroom instruction to transportation.

The Great Alaska Schools coalition has it right: "Something is wrong when even those who go out of their way to follow legislation are unable to make heads or tails out of what is actually proposed" and are not given an opportunity to comment.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at 

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