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House speaker faces school funding questions at Native Issues Forum

Posted: February 9, 2012 - 1:10am
House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, right, and Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, answer questions during the Native Issue Forum at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday. The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska will hold a series of Wednesday forums on Native issues during the legislative session.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
House Speaker Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, right, and Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, answer questions during the Native Issue Forum at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday. The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska will hold a series of Wednesday forums on Native issues during the legislative session.

Two top legislators disagreed — politely — about school funding at Wednesday’s Native Issues Forum.

House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, introduced himself by calling himself “a strong supporter of education since I’ve been here.”

The legislature is likely to increase the budget presented by Gov. Sean Parnell beyond the 3.8 percent average increase he sought, Chenault said. He didn’t speculate on how much.

Chenault, who has previously said he opposed increasing formula spending because it also increased spending in future years.

Chenault, speaking in Juneau, referred to the projected $6.6 million budget shortfall projected by the Juneau School District.

“We could give Juneau $6.6 million today, that fixes your problem. Next year you’ll be back wanting $6.6 million more dollars” or whatever next year’s number is, he said.

He said he wanted a solution that stopped the cycle of threats to cut teachers.

He said legislators were also demanding more accountability from local districts, but were aware that providing more money to schools that succeeded in showing improvement meant that other districts wouldn’t get more money, increasing disparity among districts.

Appearing with Chenault at the forum sponsored by the Tlingit-Haida Central Council was Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, chair of the Legislature’s Bush Caucus, representing mostly rural and mostly Native legislators.

He is one of four Democrats who are members of Chenault’s 26-member Majority Caucus in the House of Representatives.

Joule questioned why schools were getting held to different standards than other state activities. Problems of crime or suicide resulted in more funding to address the issue, while funding was taken from failing schools in the name of accountability, he said

“We weren’t getting held to the same standard,” said Joule, who as the son of Point Hope educators spoke from the perspective of an educator.

He said many schools in the state were doing an excellent job of incorporating a sense of place in their mission and seeing great results.

In Barrow, a school in Joule’s district, students learning about the principle of density dropped chunks of whale meat in glasses of water and watched it sink to the bottom, he said. Then they dropped in chunks of whale blubber, and watched it float.

In the high school, students studying quadratic equations calculated the throwing arc of a harpoon, something integral in local hunting.

“Those kids were into it big time,” he said.

Barrow is part of the North Slope Borough School District, which is now headed by Peggy Cowan, former superintendent in Juneau, he noted.

Under the current funding proposal, the Juneau School District will lose half of its eight cultural paraeducators, said Edward Hotch of the Juneau School District’s Indian Affairs Advisory Committee.

In schools where the Tlingit language was once banned, parents and the community waged a long campaign to get their culture back in the schools, he said.

“We fought for years to get it back — now it’s on the verge of being pushed out again,” Hotch said, with strong audience support.

Other issues that came up were oil taxes and energy costs, with Chenault reiterating his support for oil tax cuts and a state natural gas pipeline.

Jodi Mitchell of the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative asked if businesses could qualify for Power Cost Equalization subsidies, something that now applies only to homes and community facilities.

The change has been requested by struggling businesses, she said. Her company provides power in Hoonah, Angoon and other small Southeast communities.

Chenault said he hadn’t thought much about the question, but would rather the Legislature continued to fund new power projects that would provide long-term solutions.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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