JUNEAU — Education leaders are content but not exuberant about a deal brokered over the course of the legislative session that went through many changes and ended with a $90.7 million increase of K-12 school funding.
School district leaders, teachers and union representatives made their presence known at committee hearings and in legislators’ offices. They wanted a multi-year increase of the base student allocation, a formula guaranteeing districts a certain amount of cash per student, to be tied to the inflation rate. The BSA has remained stagnant for a few years, and critics believe long-term planning has become impossible while annual concerns of pink slips and program cuts have become inevitable.
Tim Parker is an English teacher Lathrop High School in Fairbanks and the director of National Education Association of Alaska. He visited Juneau during late March, along with dozens of other teachers brought to town by NEA.
“I’m a classroom teacher, so I know when money actually makes it down to us,” Parker said in an interview. “The majority of funding ends up in the classroom, but the problem we’ve had is getting stability . you might get a great program going, but every year some of those programs that are really working disappear when a principal has to find something to cut.”
Long before Parker arrived in Juneau, the Senate had agreed with the sentiment he and scores of others expressed. SB171 passed the Senate in early February, 18-2, and would have guaranteed incremental increases of the BSA through 2014.
“We gave the House the option we liked best early in the session,” said Senate Education Co-Chair Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican, in an interview Sunday night. “The evidence was convincing, but the support just wasn’t there.”
Gov. Sean Parnell and House lawmakers balked at the plan because they believe the state should retain flexibility with economic uncertainty caused by fluctuating oil prices. The bottom-line was routinely pointed out: enacting the plan would cost the state $30.6 million next year, and that figure would increase to $95.5 million annually after three years, with no easy way out of that commitment should the economy worsen.
As it became clear attempts to increase the BSA were dead in the water, the Senate turned focus to an alternative plan to guarantee funding increases for school transportation tied to the rate of inflation. Parnell and House leaders consistently said that providing funding for costs proven to have increased was a more amenable approach.
SB182, the Senate pupil transportation bill, was unanimously sent to the House in early April, and it made short work getting to that body’s Finance Committee for consideration where it underwent a series of amendments.
The version of the bill that cleared the Senate would have guaranteed annual transportation funding increases based on the Consumer Price Index, but the House instead guaranteed an increase of 1.5 percent each year, slightly less than expected inflation. A bill adding funding for vocational and technical instruction was also attached, and another change lowered the millage rate, which affects the amount districts contribute to their schools.
The change in transportation funding met little opposition, and funding for vocational and technical instruction was met with open arms. But changing the millage rate drew criticism across party lines in the Senate, in large part because few have a thorough understanding of the process or its implications.
“Maybe it’s great, but it bothers me that we didn’t have more time to consider the impact,” Meyer said. “I don’t think anyone completely understands the change.”
House Finance Co-Chair Bill Thomas, a Haines Republican, said the idea is to get local districts to contribute more to their schools. He said the state has steadily picked up more money as property around the state has devalued and many cities and boroughs have done nothing to increase their contribution.
“The people that don’t like that are probably at the bottom end, the districts who don’t pay to the cap on what (districts) can contribute,” Thomas said.
Jesse Kiehl is a member of the Juneau Assembly and an aide to Sen. Dennis Egan. Kiehl said the problem is that districts like Juneau will actually get punished for contributing the maximum amount allowed.
“It’s great to see the Juneau School District will get $1.5 million,” Kiehl said. “But the Legislature built the funding package in a way that districts with a track record of helping as much as we can, aren’t allowed to do more.”
If there is too much of a difference between cash ending up at the best- and worst-funded schools, the state of Alaska stands to lose around $60 million of federal funds, Kiehl said.
The Senate agreed to the amendments on an 11-9 vote, and that version of the bill has been sent to Parnell for consideration.
Even without an increase of the base student allocation and questions around what the change to the millage rate will mean for some districts, education leaders welcome the influx of cash next year.
“We’re happy with additional funding, and we thank everyone who helped us get there,” said Barb Angaiak, president of NEA of Alaska. “But we could have had a much better mechanism so that schools would have a reliable source of funding.”