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Alaska Legislature

Crowded Alaska classrooms likely under Gov. Dunleavy’s education budget, lawmakers say

  • Author: James Brooks
  • Updated: February 18
  • Published February 18

Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson testifies in front of the Alaska Senate Finance Committee on Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019 in the Alaska Capitol. Johnson is sitting next to Heidi Teshner, administrative services director for the Department of Education and Early Development, with Donna Arduin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, at far left. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing to cut state funding for K-12 education by more than $300 million next year, but that idea met criticism Monday from state lawmakers who appeared to reject the concept.

“You’re talking about pushing high 20s and 30s for student per teacher proportion right now,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, during a Monday morning Senate Finance Committee meeting. “The question for the commissioner is: With this adjustment, you’re going to be talking 40-44 kids per classroom. Can we adequately deliver an adequate educational product with 44 kids per classroom?”

Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson said he doesn’t know.

“Any reduction in funding is going to be difficult for everyone. There are no easy answers before us,” he said.

“I think class sizes will vary from district to district. … I can’t anticipate how each district or each classroom would respond if these reductions are passed."

Micciche’s figures aren’t solid: They’re based on an extrapolation. The governor’s budget proposal cuts about one-quarter of the state’s support for education, and that might mean one-quarter fewer teachers.

Dunleavy last week proposed cutting more than $1 billion in state spending, including the reductions in education funding, and his plan is being considered by the Alaska Legislature.

This year, the state’s budget for K-12 education is $1.6 billion. The governor has proposed reducing that to $1.3 billion, according to figures from the Office of Management and Budget.

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At the core of the reductions is a $270 million cut to the state’s foundation formula, which sends money to school districts for each student who attends class.

“From my viewpoint, I find that completely unacceptable,” said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

In the Anchorage School District, that means a $77.2 million funding loss, according to state figures, though the school district has calculated the loss to be slightly higher.

The reduction to the foundation formula isn’t the only cut: The governor has proposed eliminating a $30 million boost to school funding next year and retroactively cutting a $20 million funding increase this year. The Legislature approved those increases in 2018. If Dunleavy’s cuts happen, Anchorage would lose another $8.6 million and $5.8 million, respectively.

The governor’s budget proposal also eliminates state help for school construction and renovation. Traditionally, school districts pay only a portion of any bond issues when they borrow money to build new schools or renovate them. On Monday, the governor introduced legislation to eliminate that program.

A state estimate indicates the Anchorage School District would have to pay an additional $41.2 million next year if the legislation passes.

In total, the Anchorage School District would take a direct $133 million hit under the governor’s proposed budget.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

As Micciche pointed out Monday, when the state reduces its contribution to schools, a formula built into state law also reduces the maximum amount that local governments can contribute to schools.

“It exacerbates the problem. The locals can’t respond with local funding,” he said.

According to figures presented to the finance committee of the Anchorage School Board on Friday, the local contribution to schools would have to decline by $19.7 million.

“In my community of Anchorage, there would be a loss of $150 million in state funds for education,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage.

State and district calculations differ slightly, but both arrive near the $150 million figure.

Anchorage, as the largest school district in the state, suffers the biggest cuts under the governor’s proposed cuts, but all of the state’s school districts are affected.

Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage, criticized the administration for not offering a plan to ameliorate the effects of budget cuts.

“I would just think there would’ve been more of a plan when rolling out one of our top constitutional requirements here,” she said.

Donna Arduin, director of the Office of Management and Budget, implied that some ideas could come later from the administration.

“This is the beginning of that process, not the end. The process to work on this challenge,” she said.

The governor has repeatedly said that his goal is to increase the Permanent Fund dividend without raising taxes or spending from the state’s dwindling savings account. That goal, combined with a pre-existing budget, has led the governor to propose cutting $1.8 billion in spending.

At one point in Monday’s meeting, Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, asked Arduin how the cuts would improve education.

“We’re doing this because the state is out of money and we need to balance our budget,” she said.

“With all due respect, ma’am, that’s the wrong answer,” Bishop said.

Von Imhof summarized the debate now facing Alaskans.

“You have a choice. The public has a choice," she said. "This is what a budget looks like to pay a full dividend. How does it sit with you?”

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