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Alaska lawmakers agree on increasing per-student funding, but not on amount

Posted: March 2, 2014 - 12:07am

Officials on Government Hill agree that the state’s per-student funding needs to rise.

What they don’t agree on is the amount and how to deliver the increase.

Members of the Senate Education Committee heard testimony on pair of bills Friday — one backed by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell and the other, a Democratic proposal — about how much to increase Alaska’s Base Student Allocation (BSA), the amount the state pays school districts for each student.

In fiscal year 2014, that amount is $5,680. Alaska school districts also receive money from municipal governments, federal grants and other state programs.

The governor’s proposal, contained within the omnibus education bill SB139, calls for an $85 increase in the BSA next year and $58 increases each of the two following years.

“It’s a modest increase,” Department of Education and Early Development deputy commissioner Les Morse said of the proposal. “It was put forward to begin a dialogue not only about the funding of education, but about greater education issues.”

Officials from school districts across Alaska have testified this session that the increase is a “step in the right direction,” but that it will not solve all the fiscal problems plaguing districts across the state.

The $85 increase next year “cannot begin to make up for previous four years of flat BSA funding,” said Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka school board.

He added that the district estimates it would take an increase of more than $500 per student to make the district whole.

The Democratic proposal, SB147, calls for a $404 increase in 2015 and it ties the BSA to the consumer price index, ensuring automatic rises to keep pace with inflation.

“We should be funding education first,” said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla. “We’re looking at some storm clouds on the far horizon, but education always seems to be funded at the last minute.”

Tam Agosti-Gisler, president of the Anchorage school board, told lawmakers that even $400 next year would not be enough to offset massive cuts in recent years.

While the Alaska Legislature has provided one-time funding boosts to schools in recent years, it has not changed the BSA since 2011. Most Alaska school districts have responded to rising health insurance and other costs by cutting staff and programs.

In order for the state’s largest district to be made whole, Agosti-Gisler said, there would need to be an increase of $400 next year, followed by increases of $125 in each of the following two years.

“A lot of staff and board time has been solely on trying to mitigate the impact of less money next year,” Agosti-Gisler said while advocating for more than one year of planned increases to the BSA. “We need to be dedicating the majority of our time and efforts to finding best programs and best ways to move forward and trying to achieve our academic goals.”

Several lawmakers said putting automatic increases in statute could restrict future Legislatures’ ability to deal with fiscal challenges facing the state.

“We quickly lose control in your ability to maneuver, and we want to be as nimble as possible over the next decade,” said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.

Deputy schools commissioner Morse also advised lawmakers against an automatic increase.

“It creates future costs that are unknown, and in the fiscal climate we’re in, we don’t feel that’s safe,” Morse said.

Several speakers said the impacts of budget cuts are beginning to be felt in tangible ways in classrooms.

“This is a time we should be celebrating progress, but we’re trying to figure out where we can cut and do the least harm,” said Sunni Hilts, president of the Association of Alaska School Boards. “I don’t want to see us take backward steps because the funding is no longer available.”

One high school junior from Anchorage trekked to Juneau to share what she and her classmates see.

Elementary students can’t talk with counselors and middle school students race into classrooms because there aren’t enough chairs for them, Bridget Galvin told the Senators Friday.

“I’m not speaking because my teacher told me to, I’m speaking because I’ve seen this happen. We’ve seen these cuts have impacts,” Galvin said. “These inflation-caused cuts are hurting me. They’re hurting my peers, they’re hurting my little brother and they’re hurting the future of Alaska.”

Galvin testified with fellow Anchorage junior Nora Herzog, who cautioned the committee against thinking of education in the same light as other funding decisions.

“We cannot let the ideals that have shaped our society fade, and public education is a crucial part of opportunity,” Herzog said. “Education is not a business. It is an investment, because the students of today will be the leaders of tomorrow. Invest in your future, because we are your future.”

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