School officials and students from around the state expressed concern Monday, February 11, over Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s cuts to education, both proposed and anticipated.
Dunleavy has already proposed a $20 million cut to K-12 school operations in a supplemental budget for the current fiscal year. The one-time funds were part of a budget compromise last year.
Dunleavy is expected to seek further cuts from the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) in the FY 2020 budget to be released Wednesday.
In a meeting with lawmakers, rural educators made clear that a mid-year cut to education would be a major setback.
Aleutians East Borough School Board President Tiffany Jackson said her school district’s portion of the $20 million is $74,000. The district was able to avoid cutting one teacher after using the money to offset increasing energy costs.
Dr. Jennifer McNichol, president of the Sitka School Board, said her district would lose $187,000 if the $20 million is cut. The money is currently being used to pay two teachers.
“How do we backfill that if we lose that for this current year? Those are real numbers and a significant concern for us,” she said.
“It is untenable as it currently stands to have these unknown revenues and expenses every single year, budget after budget. It’s tough to move on in this scenario,” McNichol told senators. “We have grave concerns about the future, and we hope that you’ll keep in mind what you’re hearing, that it’s affecting all of us.”
Unalaska High School student Sean Conwell testified that he is taking online classes through the University of Alaska, but that his high school has to share limited bandwidth with the public library and the elementary school.
Dunleavy’s supplemental budget includes a $1.2 million cut to broadband access grants for schools.
“We as a state should not settle for an adequate education, but strive for excellence in providing for Alaskan youth,” Conwell declared.
Nikki Friendshuh, Kenny Lake/Slana student representative for the Copper River School Board, said there are only six high school teachers in her district to support over 100 students at three schools.
“How do you plan to support rural districts such as mine with future budget cuts, not only including this one, but impending ones?” she asked legislators.
“My answer to your question is to not have future budget cuts when it comes to education,” answered Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich (D-Anchorage).
Begich said he would work with his Senate colleagues to maintain education funding.
However, even if legislators agree to maintain funding, Article II, Section 15 of the Alaska Constitution gives Dunleavy line-item veto authority. When the budget reaches his desk, he can cut it to the size he chooses, as long as he doesn’t violate any laws in doing so.
Rural School Officials Insist They Have Explored Available Cost Savings
Cordova School Board member Pete Hoepfner said that the school district’s contributions to the Public Employees’ Retirement System and the Teachers’ Retirement System (PERS/TRS) have increased $1,130 per student in the last four years, cutting into available spending. Sixteen percent of the budget goes toward health insurance, he said.
“A lot of it boils down to money,” Hoepfner said. “It’s getting to such a point now that it’s going to start hurting pretty bad.”
Hoepfner testified that the payments are negotiated with teachers, who try to get to the most efficient health policies.
Still, “It’s taking dollars out of the classroom,” he said of PERS/TRS payments.
McNichol said that the Sitka School District is exploring becoming self-insured. They could also create a larger insurance pool with the city, but they know their employees would already be the low-cost portion of that pool.
“I just want to see that money in the classroom,” Sen. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer) told McNichol.
McNichol responded that the school district has a fiduciary responsibility to build up its financial reserves if it is going to self-insure, so there will be no short-term budget reduction.
“The situation as it stands is presenting enormous challenge,” she said. “We’re working with grants. We’re working with partnerships. We’re leveraging every dollar we have, but as time goes by, that becomes more and more difficult.”
McNichol told Sen. Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) that the Sitka School District only spends one percent of its budget on administration. Classroom operations, salary, and benefits are 85 percent of the budget.
Aleisha Mollen of the Wrangell School Board described bringing firefighters and shipbuilders into the schools as volunteers to both stretch the district’s budget and teach students career skills.
“We’re already making the deep cuts. We’re losing teachers. We’ve lost our middle school librarian, which has really raised the ire of our public,” McNichol said.
McNichol added the next area to suffer will be elementary school teacher-to-student ratios, currently in the low- to mid-20s.
“That is definitely the area that is going to take the next hit with budget constraints,” she warned.
Students testified that they met with DEED Commissioner Michael Johnson over the weekend. Johnson argued for rewriting the education foundation formula by which money is allocated based on student head count and district location.
He made similar comments last week during a confirmation hearing in Senate Finance.
“I’ve looked at the foundation formula, and I believe it does need to be rewritten,” agreed Costello.
“That day is coming,” Begich acknowledged.
But he warned that calls to reopen the formula are coming from urban school districts that would likely benefit at the expense of rural school districts.
Senate Education Chair Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) said that now is not the time to reopen the formula, suggesting there may be a chance to work on it after the legislative session ends. Adding the formula to the upcoming budget debate would be too much, he said.
Tanis Lorring, a Soldotna High School student who also serves as student advisor to the State Board of Education, said that while she believes schools should receive reliable funding, she agreed with Johnson that now is the time to rethink public education delivery.
Johnson made the point that the foundation formula precedes the iPhone, Lorring noted.
Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) said he concurs that education delivery needs to be re-evaluated.
“It doesn’t mean we would operate with less funding, but it does mean that we can work hard to make funding as efficient as possible,” he said.
Dimond High Student Reminds Senators of Real Impact of Cuts
One of the larger districts in the state, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD), will lose $1.4 million if the legislature cuts the $20 million in the supplemental budget. That money was used to pay salaries for 11.5 teachers, said KPBSD Communications Liaison Pegge Erkeneff.
“Our district would not have done that without that $20 million and the $1.4 million appropriation to our district,” she explained.
Begich said that the Dunleavy administration has been critical of school districts that spent the $20 million.
“What they’ve said to me was, ‘Well, school districts shouldn’t have spent this money on teachers,’” Begich quoted. “My response to that was, ‘They didn’t. They spent the money on the books they hadn’t bought, the computers they needed to upgrade, and the supplies that they needed, and as a consequence didn’t have to cut money from teachers because they were one-time expenses.’”
Giving Erkeneff an opportunity to respond to the administration’s critique, Begich asked her, “If you knew it was one-time money, why would you use that one-time money to hire teachers?”
Erkeneff said that not only did the legislature put in the $20 million for FY 2019; it also included $30 million in FY 2020, money that kept them from laying off those 11 teachers for two years. Past practice didn’t lead anyone at KPBSD to suspect a mid-year funding cut, she said.
In other words, Begich told her, “Promises made ought to be kept.”
“Every single time a teacher gets a pink slip, that’s another resource that a student has lost,” Dimond High School senior Kevin Lubin told senators.
A visibly emotional Lubin said the most recent round of budget cuts in the Anchorage School District cost the job of a teacher Lubin described as his best friend, an adult in the building with whom he felt comfortable confiding.
“It’s not taking money” when there are budget cuts, Lubin said. “It’s taking people. That’s taking resources from students, and that’s what’s being affected here. It’s not a budget; it’s students’ lives.”
“Every year we seem to ask more and more of teachers and more of districts, too,” responded a sympathetic Stevens.
“That’s what really shocks me, because what do you say to a district, what do you say to a school, what do you say to a teacher — ‘We want you to do less.’ What less would you do? How could you possibly do less?” asked an incredulous Stevens.
School districts will likely ask themselves those question when the FY 2020 budget is released Wednesday.
This article brought to you by Nirvana’s “School.”