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Alaska Legislature

Slow work on Alaska’s state budget by lawmakers could again lead to temporary layoffs for some teachers

A student walks toward her classroom at Begich Middle School on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

JUNEAU — Some Alaska teachers could once again receive temporary layoff notices this spring due to slow action by the Alaska Legislature on the state budget.

With that prospect in mind, House lawmakers are preparing to advance a speedy education budget barely longer than a single printed page. The budget makes no cuts or increases.

“What we’re going to try to do is prepare a separate for pre-K through 12 so we can get the schools funded and you don’t have to worry. That would be nice,” said Speaker of the House Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

If the Legislature does not approve a school budget before May 1, local school districts may begin acting under a worst-case scenario for state funding.

“Things are going to really heat up from May 1 on,” said Timothy Doran, president of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, which lawmakers have said would be one of the first affected.

Alan Brown, a spokesman for the Anchorage School District, said it does not expect layoffs.

“The bottom line is no, we’re not worried about layoffs. No pink slips this year,” he said.

In prior years, school districts uncertain about state funding imposed widespread layoffs. Many of those layoffs were rescinded when the Legislature passed an education budget, but the uncertainty discouraged teachers from staying in Alaska, increasing costs and worsening student performance.

This year, state lawmakers are struggling to incorporate federal economic aid into the state budget and expect to finish work on or shortly before May 19.

Some school districts are contractually required to warn teachers before then.

“In the face of uncertainty, school districts will issue termination notices, commonly known as pink slips, to non-tenured teachers by May 15 and to tenured teachers by the last day of school,” the House Finance Committee wrote in a document explaining the need for early action.

“We would like to early fund education so that (school districts) don’t get into a situation where they have to give out pink slips to teachers,” said House Finance co-chair Neal Foster, D-Nome.

As Foster spoke, the other co-chair, Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, vigorously nodded.

Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage, said she supports the concept of an early education budget, as did Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer and a minority member of the finance committee.

“I mean, there shouldn’t be much debate,” Rasmussen said.

If there is debate, it could come in the Senate.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, is in charge of the operating budget in the Senate and said he still expects K-12 funding to be included as part of the state’s overall budget.

School districts across Alaska will receive aid from the recently passed American Rescue Plan, and Stedman said that money — plus the Legislature’s firm pledge of unchanged funding — should give school districts enough confidence to avoid layoffs.

Brown said the federal money is enough for ASD to have that confidence.

Doran, in Fairbanks, said nothing is certain until the Legislature passes the budget and the governor signs it. Furthermore, he said, drops in student enrollment during COVID mean he isn’t certain whether the federal aid will be enough.

“The more certainty the state can give us — good news or bad news — the better,” he said.

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