School cuts spur parents to become lobbyists for funds

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

Dead silence engulfed the Matanuska-Susitna School Board's Feb. 3 meeting when the district's chief administrator laid out the spending cuts, Wasilla parent Anne Kilkenny said.

Administrator Robert Dole announced the schools would lose 88 teachers and other staff, stop funding many after-school activities and double-shift buses, resulting in elementary students getting out of school at 4:30 p.m. to close an $8 million budget gap.

"The atmosphere at the School Board meeting was like the atmosphere around the bed of a terminally ill patient in an (intensive-care unit)," she said.

Within two weeks Mat-Su parents had organized Valley Voices for Children, and they now have an e-mail network of several hundred parents, mostly in that borough, Kilkenny said.

Juneau parents formed the nonpartisan Alaska Kids Count at the end of January and now count about 400 parents in its e-mail network, including one-third from outside the capital city, said member Mary Hakala.

Proposed severe cuts to school budgets across the state have galvanized parents to lobby the Legislature. Lawmakers have told Rich Kronberg, president of the teachers union NEA-Alaska, that they are hearing more from parents about school funding than they ever have in the past.

"I think the reason is pretty clear," Kronberg said from Anchorage. "This is the first year that the pain is spread throughout the state. ... I think that's generated a tremendous amount of parental concern."

In Juneau, the district's proposal to cut $2.1 million from next school year's budget entails laying off 26 teachers, a literacy specialist and the truancy officer, eliminating seven bus routes, changing some schools' starting and ending times and reducing the budget of the charter school. Parents there say the 60-student school might have to close.

"My daughter has 26 kids in her (second-grade) classroom" at Harborview Elementary, said Alaska Kids Count member Mike Ford. "Next year, if we don't improve things, there's going to be 28 to 29 in that classroom."

Ford was on the Juneau School District's panel of parents and educators who reviewed the proposed cuts.

"The conclusion of the group was there was no place else to cut," he said. "So our message to the Juneau School Board was: Find more money."

Members of the parent groups have been contacting legislators and testifying in person or by teleconference from legislative information offices.

The groups have laid the groundwork by informing parents about proposed local school budgets and bills before the Legislature. The Juneau group provides sample letters to send to lawmakers. They encourage parents to say what revenue streams, such as taxes, they support to pay for schools.

"The most critical part is we're trying to empower parents," Hakala said. "We want parents to speak out. That is what will turn the tide."

Parents and teachers have been shoring up the schools with their own money, Alaska Kids Count members said.

"We have to buy the paper, the pencils, the notebooks, the calculators, the binders ..." Hakala said.

"The Kleenex, the snacks," Susan Linzmeier added.

"This is not what I call free public education anymore," Hakala said.

School districts' budgets for the next two years will be squeezed particularly by increased required payments into retirement funds for teachers and support staff. Those funds have been hit by stock market losses in recent years. In the Juneau School District, the mandated increases are $955,000 next year and $895,000 the year after that.

Some bills in the Legislature would simply increase the state's per-student funding. Others would do that and build in annual increases to account for inflation. One bill would give districts money for the retirement contributions.

Senate Bill 1, from the Republican leadership, would increase the per-student amount from $4,169 to $4,579. In Juneau, that translates into $3.1 million, which is $1 million more than next school year's budget gap.

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