The Juneau School District will cut 66 positions for the next school year. Or, maybe not. Anchorage? Eighty-eight Anchorage School District workers are set to receive pink slips, leaving them either looking for new jobs or hoping last-minute funding comes through, as it did in August of last year.
The cold of the Fairbanks winter has nothing on the chilling prospect of the Fairbanks North Star Borough freezing 95 positions, unknowing if they can be filled or not until and unless the Legislature acts to increase school funding.
Those are just the state’s three largest school districts, hoping for the best and planning for the worst when it comes to funding the upcoming school year. Normally, drastic budget cuts to education are reserved for states that have seen their revenues slashed by a catastrophic economic event.
In Alaska, however, the state is flush with cash. There’s $12 billion in the Constitutional Budget Reserve, not to mention a $3.7 billion budget surplus projected by Gov. Sean Parnell in his budget (The actual surplus likely won’t be that much, of course, since the Legislature will surely want to spend more than the governor does. Still, it should be healthy).
School board President Sally Saddler, as is her wont, wrapped up the dichotomy of a wealthy state underfunding education succinctly at a January meeting of the Juneau School District’s Budget Committee:
“As I sat and listened … it’s clear we’re cutting to the bone,” she said of JSD’s proposed budget cuts. “We need to be rallying. I’m getting over my sad and getting into my mad.”
Another JSD board member generally unafraid to speak his mind, Mark Choate, called the potential underfunding of education “criminal” before adding “we should not be sitting here talking about being broke with the resources the state has.”
Fortunately, most of the decision makers at the Capitol seem to agree something should be done to increase funding for education.
The problem comes from the fact no one can seem to agree on what exactly should be done. The Senate just overwhelmingly passed a bill that would lock in funding for schools for three years, bumping the per-student base allocation up $125, $130 and $135 in successive years.
Many in the House of Representatives, however, have expressed skepticism about forward funding schools for that many years, preferring to provide ad-hoc increases as they deem appropriate. Parnell, for his part, seems receptive to adding funds on an as-needed basis as well, though his proposed budget for education was essentially flat from fiscal year 2012 to FY13.
The problem with as-needed increases — apart from the fact that, when it comes to education, as-needed is really always-needed — is they play havoc on school districts as they plan budgets. School districts have to submit a budget by March for the coming school year.
This falls right as the Legislature usually gets around to deciding things like how much money to spend on schools (assuming there are no special sessions — hardly a safe guess), and well before the governor makes his final cuts with the veto pen. This forces school districts to play pink-slip Parcheesi with employees, informing them their jobs won’t be there in August, only to rehire some, maybe, if extra funding comes through.
Given the timing of the state’s budget process compared with school districts’, it’s better to give the schools certainty in their budget numbers. While those hesitant to lock in funding have a point when they want to keep the state’s ability to budget nimbly on a year-to-year basis intact, a three-year plan seems a good compromise for leaders at both the state and school levels.
For Juneau, a $125 increase in the Base Student Allocation would translate into about $625,000 for next school year. Far from “the ultimate giveaway” Parnell called the plan to provide this modest increase, it’s instead somewhere between one-sixth and 1/10th of the funds the district will need to bridge its budget difficulties.
In other words, it will help, but it won’t be enough. Cuts are coming to JSD, and it’s more than a little insulting to suggest a BSA increase is a windfall that will lead to educational extravagance. If it makes it though the House and past the governor’s desk, it won’t even be enough to stop the bleeding, just slow it down a bit.
The 3-year plan of increases to the BSA seems to be the best anyone can hope for this legislative session. Lawmakers need to make this bill a law, not only to give schools some modest funding, but also to stop the yearly uncertainty when it comes to the school budget process.
• Charles Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire.