A proposed constitutional amendment to fund public education early each year received its first hearing Thursday, March 14.

Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 9, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mia Costello (R-Anchorage), would require the governor to file a separate appropriation bill for public education.  The legislature would then have to pass it by Day 45 of each regular legislative session.

That would secure K-12 funding by early March.

Municipal ordinances require the North Slope Borough, Anchorage, and Fairbanks North Star Borough school districts to submit their budgets in March, while AS 14.14.060 requires all districts to file budgets by May 1.

Yet in 15 of the last 22 years, the legislature has failed to pass its own operating budget before May 1.

State law stipulates that, without a budget in place, notices of potential layoffs must be issued on May 15.

Last year, the legislature passed a separate education funding bill, HB 287, in April.  Not only did the bill fund FY 2019 education in a timely manner; it forward-funded K-12 for FY 2020, so the current legislature does not need to make an education appropriation this year, unless it chooses to accept a portion of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $300 million cut.

HB 287 was the companion of a bill filed by Senate Education Chair Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak).

“That was a great compromise that did give all of us in education an opportunity to plan and do budgets with some assurance that we could offer contracts in a timely way, retain those teachers, attract those teachers,” Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators (ACSA), testified during Thursday’s Senate Education hearing.

Seeking to expand on HB 287, Costello originally requested her concept in bill form.

However, the legislature’s legal division reminded her that because the power of appropriation is given the legislature by the Alaska Constitution, no legislature may bind another.  Otherwise, one legislature would diminish the constitutional authority of subsequent legislatures.

“If the legislature does wish to entrench legislation… it has one option: a constitutional amendment,” Legislative Counsel Meera Caouette advised Costello in a memo.  “Without a constitutional amendment, the March 31 deadline in the draft bill would not be binding on future legislatures.”

“We will fund education this year.  That will happen,” Sen. Chris Birch (R-Anchorage) assured.

But, Birch added, “I’ve got some reticence to putting stuff in the constitution.” 

He said he would prefer to pass the entire operating budget earlier every year, rather than carve out a special place for education.

“Ideally, the legislature would be doing what you did last year or forward-funding or doing something to ensure reliable funding,” agreed Parady.  “Because the whole point is you want school districts to operate efficiently and run like a business, and in order to do that, they need to know what their budgets are.”

Parady said it is difficult to find consensus among the many education organizations in the state, but there is a clear priority in ACSA’s 2019 Joint Position Statements.

“Unequivocally, the highest priority is this: timely, reliable, and predictable revenue for schools so that they can do the appropriate planning in the way that you want them to,” she told the committee.

“At the end of the day, it needs to be consistent and reliable, and this does seem to be the best pathway today to be able to ensure that,” Parady said of SJR 9.

If passed by two-thirds of each chamber, SJR 9 would go before the voters in 2020.

Sen. Birch Struggles to Understand State Law, Not Unions, Governs Pink Slips

In a sponsor statement, Costello noted that the legislature’s habit of passing operating budgets in April or May has led to uncertainty for school districts.

“In most instances, this uncertainty forces school districts to have to issue pink slips to educators then rehire them once the educational funding is finalized by the Legislature,” she wrote.

By that time, many of the teachers in which school districts have invested have left the area, testified Tim Parker, president of NEA-Alaska.

“That’s really the whole nut of this problem.  We go out to try to hire them, and they’ve already gone.  They’ve secured employment somewhere else.  And often they’re our best and brightest,” said Parker.  “That really is a heartbreaker.” 

NEA-Alaska represents 13,000 active and retired teachers and is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Parker said pink slips are sort of a question mark.

“People make individual decisions based on that question mark.  Some stay.  Most go,” he said.

“Is it absolutely necessary to do the pink slip thing?” Birch asked. “It always struck me that the whole pink slip issue was basically a manifestation of the labor contract that describes the notice requirement for a tenured employment.  I’m kind of worried about the tail wagging the dog here.” 

While union contract language for tenured teachers may mirror statute, it is AS 14.20.140 that requires school districts to provide pink slips to non-tenured teachers by May 15.  AS 14.20.150 then defines a tenured teacher as one who has worked in the same district three consecutive years.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) and Costello’s legislative aide, Tom Wright, both reminded Birch on at least three occasions that State law governs, even citing the specific statutes.  Still Birch struggled to deviate from his narrative.

“My frustration is that the pink slip issue is largely a manifestation of a contract provision that could be managed and dealt with at a local government level or school board level.  I personally don’t think it’s being dealt with effectively,” he insisted.

Public testimony was unanimously in support of SJR 9, even from David Nees, a perennial candidate for Anchorage office.  Nees is again running in the current Anchorage municipal election, this time for School Board Seat B.

Nees supports the fact that SJR 9 would codify and confine public education to Kindergarten through Grade 12.

Begich, who signed on as a co-sponsor Wednesday, would like to see SJR 9 amended to include pre-K.

Despite Nees’ support, he said the resolution would likely benefit NEA-Alaska and asked committee members to disclose a conflict of interest if they had taken campaign donations from the union.

Stevens responded sharply that he took no such contributions in his most recent campaign.

Another point of contention for Birch was the unions’ role in rising health care costs.

Aren’t those costs negotiated between unions and school districts, he asked.

“I don’t know of a district that has not negotiated with their teachers and other negotiating bodies to address that situation, the escalating costs in health care.  But you can’t keep up with that inflationary rate.  It’s so extreme,” responded Parady.  “You can’t keep up with that rate.”

Parker said the average NEA-Alaska member is a 52-year-old woman.  Because the majority of members are older and female, Parker said they care more about health care and are willing to pay a premium for it.

He added that there is a limited range of health care costs available to the union health plans.

“They can’t stop the increase in health care costs,” said Parker, an English teacher.  “I don’t know what to do about that.  My expertise is helping students learn.”

Teacher Turnover Costs State $20 Million Per Year

There are about 8,000 public school teachers in Alaska, according to the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).  

Parady said turnover statewide is about 25 percent, but that average is driven down by greater stability in urban areas.

“When you get out to a remote, isolated place, you’re looking at 60-percent turnover, 70-percent turnover.  That’s devastating,” she told the committee.

Turnover among principals and superintendents has been 26 percent and 70 percent respectively, during Parady’s five years in office at ACSA, she said.

“When you look at a business that’s having that kind of turnover, what is their output?  I think we have to look at school districts that way,” Parady advised.

ISER found that a contributing factor to poor teacher retention is salaries, which “are about 15% below where they should be.”

Parker said the State’s switch from a pension-style retirement plan to a 401(k)-style plan is also hurting.

“We have the worst retirement proposal for teachers in the country.  Forty-nine states all have a defined benefit or a hybrid.  We’re the only state that has a defined contribution only and no Social Security,” he said.  “It’s a competitive labor market out there, and we’re not keeping up.”

Haines Borough School District Superintendent Roy Getchell, who spent time working in the United Arab Emirates, noted that competition is not just with other states; countries in Asia and the Middle East are offering healthy compensation packages to attract thousands of teachers from the U.S.

A national teacher shortage and relatively low compensation in Alaska make teachers more likely to leave the state when they receive pink slips.

Several teachers and school administrators testified about the experience of personally receiving pink slips.

Tammy Smith, a teacher in Fairbanks and NEA state director, received a pink slip each year from 1989 through 1991.

“I was a brand new teacher.  I was a brand new mother,” she told committee members.

Smith said her sister tried to lure her to Minnesota, where there were teaching jobs.  The second time she got a pink slip, Smith took unemployment benefits.

“I have to protect my family,” she thought at the time.

Birch was a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) Assembly and remembered those pink slips.

Conversely, retired Denali Elementary School teacher Christine Villano remembered Birch’s time on the FNSB Assembly.

“I’m a little nervous, especially of Senator Birch,” she prefaced her testimony.

“We all are,” joked Stevens.

Villano said she had also been pink slipped.  Without knowing if she would be re-hired, she “had to pack up the circus” that was her elementary classroom supplies.

“It makes you want to quit because you’re so nervous.  It makes you want to leave the state,” she said.  “You’re not on your A game.  You’re worried about finances, your future, and that ripples down to kids and their families.  You can’t be the best.  It’s like having cancer.  You can’t be the best you can when you know you’ve got to go for treatments.”

Sarah Sledge, executive director of the Coalition for Education Equity, said that teacher turnover correlates with student attendance, performance, and mental health.  She noted some rural schools only have two or three teachers.

“When those teachers leave year after year, it’s devastating to young people,” Sledge said. 

Each time a school district fails to retain a teacher and has to recruit, hire, and train a replacement, it costs over $20,000.  Teacher turnover costs the state $20 million per year, according to ISER.

Parady: “We’re Hemorrhaging Teachers Right Now”

Dunleavy’s FY 2020 budget is contributing to the uncertainty in school districts.

“Everyone in the state’s talking about it,” Parker said of the budget.

Although education was forward-funded by HB 287, Dunleavy’s budget requests that legislators cut $300 million of that money already appropriated.  Some districts are reluctant to sign contracts with individual teachers while that budget is circulating.

Getchell said he wanted to hire a high-level math teacher. With Dunleavy’s budget under debate, “That option is off the table for us,” Getchell said.

Eric Pederson, principal at Paul Banks Elementary School in Homer and president-elect of the Alaska Association of Elementary Principals, said he has three teachers without contracts for next year because of Dunleavy’s budget.  

He fears they will take their skills to another state.  Meanwhile, he will have to fill their vacancies from a shallow pool of applicants if the legislature passes the budget late because most teacher hiring occurs in March and April.

Yakutat School District Superintendent Patrick Mayer testified that he is going to fill one vacancy, but there is risk because that represents 16 percent of certified staff.

“We’re going to roll the dice,” he told Senate Education.

“My sympathies go out to superintendents who have to decide, ‘What’s the budget going to be?  Is it going to be the governor’s budget?  Is it going to be something less?  Something more than the governor’s budget?  Do I hire people not knowing if the monies will be there in the end?’  It’s just an enormous problem for superintendents to face,” Stevens said.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is holding non-tenured teacher contracts until there is resolution on Dunleavy’s budget.

Mat-Su teacher Jill Showman, who moved to Alaska after she was pink slipped in Iowa, said the state cannot afford the additional uncertainty of Dunleavy’s budget while UAA education programs are not accredited.

“It’s much easier to retain the staff that we have than attract new candidates,” she said.

Parady testified that she has just finished a survey on the impacts of Dunleavy’s proposed budget.

While it is not yet compiled and published, “My initial look at that is that we’re hemorrhaging teachers right now,” she warned.

Taking a dig at the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) tagline, Alaska Municipal League (AML) Executive Director Nils Andreassen said, “We believe that ‘sustainable, affordable, and predictable’ solutions cannot come at the cost of student achievement, should be implemented over time, and should correspond to local conditions, planning, and negotiated agreements.”

Testifiers Say SJR 9 Will Improve Teacher Retention and Student Outcomes

The State Board of Education & Early Development adopted the Alaska Education Challenge in 2016 to improve academic performance.

A section of the document explaining the Challenge reads, “National research suggests that outcomes improve when students receive quality instruction from well-prepared teachers, and that teacher turnover negatively affects student outcomes.”

“It’s right there.  We’re not talking about something that is new or different,” Parker told Senate Education.  “Stability in schools leads to greater student outcomes.” 

Teacher retention is key to building trust with individual students and parents, several people noted Thursday.

“If a teacher’s there year to year to year, they build relationships,” said Parker.

Parker, a teacher at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, said it is always impactful during an assembly when teachers are asked to stand if they are Lathrop graduates.

“When we see success in our system… it’s almost always around where we have that solid community and solid sort of base,” he said.  “Build that solid base, our kids will learn.  That’s a win for everyone.” 

“Stability and certainty is what we’re looking for,” Parker concluded.

Villano agreed, saying stability allows school districts to focus on their core mission.

Valdez City Schools Superintendent Shawn Arnold said that Finland is often held up as an example for U.S. school systems to follow.  Yet Finland forward-funds education and doesn’t debate cuts every year.

“If districts are expected to spend responsibly, we need to be given the time to plan accordingly,” said Arnold.

Sledge said SJR 9 will put students first by removing that kind of uncertainty.  It is critical to a long-term fiscal plan, she told committee members.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss noted that teachers moving to or within Alaska are often bringing spouses and children.

“For a whole family to move, there needs to be this perspective of our state stability.  The resolution that Senator Costello has put forward is a critical lifeline for making that possible,” said Weiss.

Stevens held SJR 9 in committee.

This article brought to you by Utah Phillips performing “The Preacher and the Slave”

Can you make a donation to support our writers?