Gov. Sean Parnell in his State of the State address asked Alaskans to “stand together to develop our most valuable resource — our children.”
But his budget this year didn’t provide what many education advocates think is a crucial part of that resource’s future, money to cope with rising costs in education.
“I have to admit I’m frustrated,” said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who has led the Democratic response to Parnell’s budget proposals.
Parnell’s budget this year included no increase to the formula used to fund education, which provides what is known as the Base Student Allocation. That’s the per-pupil amount of funding school districts receive, and is particularly valuable to districts because they get to control how it is spent.
Juneau School District recently announced the possible cut of 66 positions next year, which Kerttula said was just the first of many cuts likely to happen statewide.
“We’re not keeping up with inflation,” Kerttula said. “That means 66 people out of the Juneau School District and that’s going to be rolling into Anchorage and Fairbanks and right across the state,” she said.
Parnell, though, said given uncertain times, Alaska needed to retain financial flexibility by not increasing the formula amount that will result in more state spending not just this year, but in future years as well.
“I really am not interested in changing formula programs of whatever kind, BSA increases or other kinds, because I think in these difficult economic times and very uncertain economic times the state needs to remain as liquid as we can,” Parnell said at a press conference Thursday.
Parnell left the door open to one-time funding increases, extra spending that helps districts for a single year, but which doesn’t commit the state to future years — meaning districts can’t count on that money being there in the future either.
NEA-Alaska President Barb Angaiak said that’s not what the state’s schools need.
“I am shocked at the governor’s failure to address the needs of (kindergarten through 12th grade) education in Alaska after stating education as a priority,” she stated in a press release.
While Angaiak acknowledged what she called a “minimal number of construction/renovation projects and his own merit-based scholarship program” were among his priorities, she said that wasn’t enough.
She said, “flat funding” education doesn’t provide schools with the tools needed for students to compete in either the workforce or higher education.
While some influential leaders in the Senate have urged increases to the Base Student Allocation, Parnell said schools have already received “huge” budget increases.
Last year, he said, while the BSA was not increased, districts got a bump in their funding to help them deal with rising fuel costs.
“I’m open to talking about those kind of one-time, fixed-cost bumps,” he said.
Parnell said the $400 million he’s seeking to have committed to endow his scholarship program was different that adding to a formula program because it is a sustainable way to pay for one of his priority program.
Kerttula said the education foundation formula has been used for years to ensure fair funding for districts across the state.
She also questioned why the state was setting aside money for the next year’s education budget in a process called “forward funding,” and then making districts wait each year to see if there would be one-time funding to balance their budgets.
Parnell said he wasn’t surprised by the criticisms.
“It’s politics,” he said, noting that the criticism was coming from Democrats who want a BSA increase. “I understand how the system works here.”
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.