Alaska Legislature

House spending plan includes funding for experimental Alaska reading institute despite lawmakers’ misgivings

The Alaska House majority has included in its spending plan $5 million for an experimental reading institute despite concerns raised by lawmakers and delays in the opening of a planned Anchorage facility.

Lawmakers last year approved a request from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to create the institute with a one-time $5 million appropriation. This year’s plan would make the institute permanent, despite continued changes in the institute’s stated goals.

The state rented in August a 17,000-square-foot facility in Anchorage for the institute at a cost of over $21,000 per month. The facility, located on East Benson Boulevard, was meant to include 10,000 square feet of classroom space and a 7,000-square-foot outdoor playground. The state reported budgeting $1.4 million out of last year’s appropriation for renovating the facility, but more than seven months after the lease was signed, the facility has yet to open and its intended use remains unclear.

The facility was meant to open on April 1, according to education department spokesperson Laurel Shoop. But the opening was delayed because the department “recently received notice that the trusses need to be inspected on the building prior to occupancy,” Shoop said.

According to a city map, the building leased by the state for the reading institute has been identified as one with a wooden truss design that could be susceptible to collapse under high snow loads. The municipality had not yet notified the department of a date for the inspection as of Thursday.

[Alaska House’s draft budget has a $2,272 dividend, $175 million in extra school funding]

Meanwhile, Shoop said the institute has so far offered 59 training sessions to 1,194 teachers. All but five districts have used the institute’s professional development offerings. The institute also plans to provide “virtual tutoring services” to a total of 139 students in seven districts this year, out of 54 districts in the state.


The districts currently receiving tutoring services include the Anchorage School District, Nenana City School District, Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Galena City School District, Juneau School District, Yukon Flats School District and Sitka School District.

Outside of the building-related expenses, the institute’s largest planned expenditure is $1.3 million on summer school grants to school districts. The department recently posted a request for information seeking private tutoring and professional development services companies who would be interested in contracting with the state to provide summer programming — all virtually.

At a meeting of the House Education Budget Subcommittee, Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River, raised questions about why the department was spending so much money on renovating a new rental facility when it could offer its services without it.

“I’m a little bit concerned. Don’t you think it would be actually less expensive to bring these individuals out to communities in which they are teaching in the districts, so that they can actually do a live training with students?” said Allard.

Carol Boatman, the director of the institute, said the facility would allow the department to take two approaches — either provide training to teachers where the students are located, or have teachers travel to Anchorage for training at the facility.

“I find this just not fiscally working for me,” Allard said.

At a subsequent meeting earlier this month, the subcommittee unanimously agreed to remove the funding for the reading institute from the budget draft and redirect the funds to Head Start, a federally-funded early childhood program that requires a state match. For several years, the state has not fully funded the program.

“The need for Head Start is pretty clear. I have misgivings about the Alyeska Reading Academy so I was thinking if we are going to make these investments … in early childhood efforts toward reading, we can make those through the Head Start program,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent who proposed the amendment.

Himschoot said the Alyeska Institute’s rental space, and the $1.4 million investment in its renovation, “feels like a lot.”

“I have spent quite a bit of time talking with folks in Sitka about what they have received,”she said. “They’ve had a lot of struggle to get anything going through the program.”

However, the funding for the reading institute was quietly added back to the spending plan backed by House Republican leadership on Friday. Lawmakers also left the additional $5 million Head Start funding in the budget draft.

Rep. DeLena Johnson, a Palmer Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee and is responsible for putting together the operating budget, said the funding for the academy was put back in “because it could be something that was essential to teaching teachers to learn how to teach reading.”

“The Alyeska Reading Academy isn’t necessarily just about that little school, it’s about being able to bring people in from all over the state that are having trouble teaching children to read elsewhere,” said Johnson.

The expenses on the yet-to-open building reflect the changing focus of the institute. In June, Dunleavy spokesman Grant Robinson said that for professional development in rural Alaska, “rather than having a group of teachers travel to into Anchorage, the program will send an expert to the community.”

In December, Department of Education spokesperson Caroline Hamp said that institute staff had flown to Kashunamiut School District and Kuskokwim School District to provide in-person support. But in March, Shoop said institute staff had not traveled to any other school districts.

Rep. Julie Coulombe, an Anchorage Republican who chairs the education finance subcommittee, said she was “kind of surprised” the funding was not only included in the budget, but was included on a permanent basis, meaning that without action by future Legislatures, the $5 million would be spent every year on the institute in perpetuity.

“We don’t understand why they were making this building in Anchorage,” said Coulombe. “I thought they were going to go out to the districts and the reading specialists were going to be helping out there. Now we’re requiring teachers to go to Anchorage for a week, two weeks, out of the classroom and go get training.”


“The intent and the vision for the reading academy I felt was a little fuzzy,” she added. “They want $5 million in the base — forever. I was more inclined to do a one-time and then come back and look at it next year and say, okay — do we have a clear vision? Do we know what we’re doing? Are we making any difference? And do we need to ditch the building and send people out?”

Shoop said that if funding for the institute is eliminated from the budget, “the tutoring and a good portion of the professional development would be eliminated from services offered to Alaska’s schools.”

But a relatively small portion of the grant has been spent so far directly on tutoring and professional development. According to a department presentation last month, combined expenditures on professional development, on-site support for school districts, student tutoring, manuals and materials, and travel grants totaled less than $1 million.

Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed from Juneau.

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at