OPINION: The power of neighborhood schools

january, covid, pandemic, back to school, in-person learning, inlet view, elementary, winter

Last year, the Alaska Legislature made historic investments in long-overdue school capital investments. We appropriated these funds at a critical time, as rural schools needed replacement or major repairs, Mat-Su voters needed help funding school expansion as their population grows, and as Anchorage voters sent a clear signal they demand the state support for capital investments in local schools. We made these appropriations in collaboration with school officials, and that collaboration should serve as a model for next year’s session, when we need to update the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, formula and improve teacher retention through pension reform.

First, let’s review some of the critical investments in capital projects. Our appropriation of capital funds had a huge and positive impact in the Mat-Su region, where rapid population growth has driven the expansion of school facilities. On a per-capita basis, our appropriation of capital funds helped the Mat-Su more than any other reason, and although we are Eagle River and Anchorage legislators, we are fully committed to a strong education system and economic growth across Alaska. Recognizing Alaska’s diversity, we also invested in rural schools.

The Anchorage School District, or ASD, received more than $100 million for capital, and legislators worked closely with ASD to ensure that those dollars could backfill time-sensitive projects that were on the April bond. After years of rising assessments, taxes and vetoes that shifted the tax burden onto local homeowners, we heard loud and clear that Anchorage voters wanted the state to share in school capital investments. So we listened, and appropriated capital funds with the intent of helping the district solve a wide range of challenges. From a boiler at Birchwood Elementary to a building replacement for Inlet View to a roof replacement at Kasuun Elementary, we knew that further delays in critical projects would only raise costs for taxpayers, endanger kids and put economic growth at risk.

As we write, the Anchorage School Board has appropriated two-thirds of the funds we appropriated, and delayed the decision on Inlet View funding until after potential school closures were released. Inlet View was not and should not be on any school closure list. As a high-performing school that serves a critical function supporting economic development, we need to keep this school open, and that means replacing a derelict building. It was our intent to fund this school replacement, and the school board should honor that intent. Of course, Inlet View is just one important neighborhood school: The Anchorage School Board should work with the Legislature to keep all our critical neighborhood schools open, from Chugiak to Midtown to South Anchorage.

With $37 million remaining from the funds we appropriated, the Anchorage School Board can reject every school closure put forward by the ASD administration and finish the Inlet View building replacement as we intended. That would give the Legislature this upcoming session to raise the BSA and index it to inflation, reform pensions and provide districts with the budget predictability they need. To keep our beloved neighborhood schools open, we have to address both operating and capital needs if our schools are going to provide the education that kids deserve.

Neighborhood schools are a cornerstone of our economic future, and ASD should not close Birchwood, Nunaka, Northwood, Klatt or other neighborhood schools. Closing those schools would accelerate population loss, particularly among working-age Alaskans who employers need on the job right now. Investing in our schools sends a clear message that Alaska is open for business and fully committed to long-term economic growth. The Legislature will be prioritizing education and schools in the upcoming session, and we urge the Anchorage School Board to do its part: Keep our neighborhood schools open and finish appropriating capital dollars as we intended.

Tom Begich is a state senator and Zack Fields is a state representative. Both are from Anchorage.

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