Schools facing a 'no' in money quest

Volunteer lobbyists spread through Capitol to confront top leaders' opposition

Posted: Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In the rarefied atmosphere of the staid Senate Finance Committee room, high school senior Brandon Boyer dropped an “F-bomb.”

MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

A gasp went out of the room when he warned them he was going to do it, but Boyer said he was willing to accept the possible consequences of his actions.

The “F-bomb” to which Boyer referred was the delicate issue of school funding, and that’s something some powerful legislators and Gov. Sean Parnell have said they don’t want to talk about.

Though a couple of legislators have proposed increasing the “Base Student Allocation,” the central part of how the state pays for schools in Alaska, increases look to be a tough sell this year. Under deals worked out in the past, the BSA level was expected to increase $100 a student to $5,680 per student this year.

A number of school districts, including Juneau, have said that’s not enough to cover rising costs and some painful cuts will have to be made.

But Boyer challenged Parnell and others by saying more funding was needed.

“I think it’s really important the BSA is increased,” said Boyer, a standout student at Chugiak High School.

That’s not what Parnell wants to hear. He said schools have already had big increases in recent years and aren’t doing enough with what they’ve already been given.

“We are producing a product for our students that’s less than acceptable, I think that’s a commonly held view,” he said.

Parnell said he hopes to increase student performance by providing some scholarships to top performing students, part of a way to find better incentives to get a better product.

“Those incentives are misplaced if 66 percent of our students still need remedial help when they hit the University of Alaska.”

Representatives of schools, school board and others are in Juneau this week for a legislative fly-in, seeking state assistance for school issues, particularly more money.

They may have difficulty convincing key lawmakers — especially in the House of Representatives — that’s where the state’s efforts should lie, however,

Top Senate leaders, including Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, met in a large group with the fly-in attendees, his House counterpart, Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has been sending early signals he’ll be difficult to persuade,

“We’ll look at that and see if not only are they are spending the money (they currently get) wisely, but what are we getting in return,” Chenault said.

He said graduation rates are too low and it is not clear more money would raise them.

“What type of commitments are we getting from the school district as far as dropout rates and other things,” he said.

Districts, he said, need to be accountable for what they’re already getting.

Chenault’s top deputy, House Majority Leader Alan Austerman, voiced similar concerns.

“Is giving them more money going to get more kids to graduate?” he asked.

The districts’ response is “yes,” said Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka School Board and president-elect of the Alaska Association of School Boards.

But Garrison said some of the districts’ top priorities — including wide use of pre-kindergarten programs to help all children arrive at school ready to learn — pay great dividends, but only after 10-15 years.

“A number of the specifics we are talking about won’t present results overnight,” he cautioned.

A dollar spent on pre-K today provides between $8 and $17 dollars down the road, Garrison said.

“That seems like a pretty darn good investment to me,” said Garrison, a fisheries biologist who used to work at DIPAC’s Snettisham Hatchery.

Juneau School Board member Andi Story said even with the expected $100 dollar per student BSA increase, the district was facing cuts.

“We are doing what we can with the dollars we have, but we’d like to be doing more,” she said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or

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