AKLEG Day 22: 'We're all walking off a cliff'
Larger class sizes, fewer electives, fewer teachers, shuttered schools and choices between heating and payroll were just a few of the things administrators warned may happen without a BSA boost.
Good afternoon, Alaska! It’s Day 22 of the legislative session.
In this edition: School administrators packed a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees on Monday to plea for a permanent increase to baseline education funding, warning of ballooning class sizes, a continued revolving door of teachers and other hard decisions. The ask for a $1,413 increase in per-student funding, however, could be running into the fact that there’s a chunk of the building that simply doesn’t want to believe it’s really that bad.
Current mood: 😵💫
“You cannot put a price on celebrating freedom,” Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, during a back and forth with Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, in the House Finance Committee over the estimated cost of making Juneteenth a state holiday.
‘We’re all walking off a cliff’
“I think we’re all walking off a cliff,” Haines Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Roy Getchell, the president of the Alaska Superintendents Association, told the House and Senate education committees at a joint hearing on Monday. “Some are already there, but we’re all on the way.”
Larger class sizes, fewer electives, fewer teachers, shuttered schools and choices between heating and payroll were just a few of the things school administrators warned may happen if baseline education funding isn’t increased substantially this year. Several wore red buttons emblazoned with “Base Student Allocation $1,413,” the amount that the state’s per-student funding formula needs to increase to keep pace with what has essentially been six years of flat funding.
“At my school, I’m at the point where I get to choose whether I heat my school or pay my teachers. I bet that many of our districts are feeling that pain,” said Heather Heineken, chief financial officer for Yukon-Koyukuk School District, who explained that fixed costs like heating and insurance have accounted for a massive pinch on school budgets. “We’ve got to heat our schools, so what’s it going to cost us to do that? … We are in a dire situation for our students.”
The hearing comes as the state’s largest school districts are starting to hammer out their budgets, with alarming figures emerging like 30-plus student elementary school classrooms in Fairbanks and 100 fewer staff positions in Anchorage.
While the bipartisan Senate has been generally supportive of education funding, having passed a $680 increase to the base student allocation last year, the same can’t be said of the Republican-led House or Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Both Dunleavy and House Republicans have pushed for a much smaller — if any — increase to baseline funding linked to far-reaching changes to education policy.
While Republicans have argued that targeted funding is a wiser approach, some have also suggested that schools are exaggerating the severity of the situation. At his budget rollout, Gov. Dunleavy questioned whether Anchorage was really facing as big a deficit as the district claims, and Education Commissioner Deena Bishop similarly said the concern was overblown in an interview heading into the session.
“Speaking from experience, it will be OK,” Bishop said in a recent interview with Alaska Public Media. “The BSA, it’s always, ‘The sky is falling,’ and I just want people to know it will be OK.”
At another hearing, Bishop said that the funding issues faced by schools were really more a product of prioritization and management. Nikiski Republican Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a teacher and supporter of education funding, noted the administration’s claims during Monday’s hearing and asked Haines Borough School District Superintendent Getchell what guidance they have been providing districts.
Getchell said the state hasn’t provided any.
Later, Bjorkman implored educators to be clear about the consequences of not funding schools and the possibilities if they are properly funded.
“Say the quiet part out loud,” he said. “Because you have a commissioner that says, ‘You don’t need any more money.’ And meanwhile, I have students emailing me saying, ‘Please save my music program.’ ‘I want to learn a foreign language at my school.’”
Dr. Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, urged legislators to listen when their constituents reach out to them, noting that several legislators have refused to take such meetings this session.
Parady emphasized that the funding situation has created undue stress and uncertainty for staff, which results in a revolving door of teachers and support staff that hurts students.
“There is research that talks about the impacts of turnover,” she said. “Superintendent turnover impacts principal turnover, principal turnover impacts teacher turnover, and when we’re seeing that kind of spin cycle with school districts and that kind of instability, what we know is it creates lower student achievement. One of the keys to increasing student achievement is stabilizing school districts and being able to keep our high-quality staff.”
Follow the thread: The education committees hear from school administrators
So what’s happening?
The education legislation preferred by House Republicans and Gov. Dunleavy, which would be the sprawling omnibus that was grafted onto Senate Bill 140, has been absent after the first week of the legislative session when the House tried to rush it. It’s clear that House Republicans — who have the thinnest of majorities — don’t have the votes to pass it, so is it dead?
“Well, we are still negotiating with all parties,” said House Majority Leader Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, when asked about the fate of the legislation during today’s news conference.
The Senate has been a bit more forthcoming about the state of the negotiations, but that hasn’t provided much insight into where things are headed. That’s in large part because the Senate leadership isn’t entirely clear on what the House wants out of the negotiations, a point that Senate President Gary Stevens laid out in today’s news conference. He noted that the Senate already put a BSA increase on the table last session — at $680 — and they’re still waiting on the House to come to a number, noting he’s heard anything from higher to nothing.
“We are at $680,” Stevens said of the bill passed by the Senate last year.
When asked if that’s the cap on where things could land this session, which would be less than half of what schools say is needed to maintain the status quo, Stevens said that’s what they were able to land on as the Senate last year.
Sen. Löki Tobin, who is one of the Senate’s key negotiators on the education bill, acknowledged the calls for more but said it’s a process of working with the House and governor to reach a figure.
“We all want to get to yes, and we’re starting at where we thought there was common ground and are going to build on that,” she said. “Who knows where we end up at the conclusion of all this, but I’m hopeful that we will put the most significant amount of money we can into the BSA that the state has ever seen.”
Attitudes, though, are shifting on that number, with some in the Senate, like Sen. Bjorkman, openly calling for a higher figure. Bjorkman noted that the pleas for increased funding aren’t about huge investments on top of what schools are already doing but about preventing more cuts that lead to fewer opportunities.
“If we’re going to keep districts whole and keep them from making cuts and keep them from taking away educational opportunities … the BSA increase number needs to be larger than $680,” he said. “If the public is OK with less educational opportunities for their children, with less opportunities for vocational training in tech-ed at middle- and high-school level, if they’re OK with less math interventionists and lower math and reading scores, then that’s what they should expect if the BSA increase is $680 or less. If you want to keep districts whole and keep them from making cuts, that number has to be higher than $680.”
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