Day 113: 'We need to do something drastic'
A permanent increase to Alaska’s public school funding formula is a step closer to reality.... but, wait, but aren’t schools swimming in money?
Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 113 of the legislative session.
In this edition: A permanent increase to Alaska’s public school funding formula is a step closer to reality after the Senate Finance Committee put the finishing touches on legislation to increase the base student allocation and sent it to the floor for a vote. Also, I’ve got an overdue deep dive on a wildly misleading document the Dunleavy administration is circulating that suggests that schools are swimming in money. The only problem is that it’s seriously outdated and not even that hard to double-check.
Current mood: 🙃
Coming up today: The Legislature’s marathon joint session to vote on the governor’s appointments, which I’ll be covering live on Twitter starting at 11 a.m.
‘We need to do something drastic’
A permanent increase to Alaska’s public school funding formula is a step closer to reality.
On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee introduced an updated version of Senate Bill 52 that would make permanent the $680 per student increase to the base student allocation formula, which translates to a roughly $174 million increase to K12 funding statewide, and advanced it from the committee, setting it up for a floor vote in the near future.
The amount is scaled back pretty significantly from what the Senate Education Committee advanced and no longer contains a second-year increase. Still, Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Löki Tobin told the committee that it meets the goals of increased, stable and dependable school funding.
“While the numbers are different, the proposed committee substitute here from Senate Finance meets the policy goals set forth by the Senate Education Committee to significantly increase the base student allocation,” she said, recognizing the dozens of meetings and dozens of hours of public testimony on the issue. “It is very clear to us that the Alaska public education system is struggling, and we need to do something drastic. This bill does just that. If passed and it becomes law, it will be a permanent increase that will help every child and young adult who receives a public education here in Alaska.”
The $680 figure is currently contained in the House and Senate operating budgets as a one-time increase that would expire next year, which advocates say would subject schools to yet another round of uncertainty over funding. The increase would technically be the largest-ever increase to school funding in Alaska, but it comes on the heels of several years of either flat funding or mercurial one-time boosts.
While the bill falls well short of the $1,000 increase proposed by the Senate Education Committee, it’s not the only additional funding this version of the bill will send schools’ way.
The committee also unanimously approved a pair of amendments by Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, that would increase funding for residential boarding schools as well as the funding for pupil transportation statewide. That second lump of money, about $8 million statewide, will help schools with the cost of bussing and transportation. It’s a figure that also hasn’t seen a permanent increase for several years, forcing districts to pull money out of the base student allocation to cover bussing costs.
“We’re acknowledging there’s a problem with the bussing,” Bishop said, “and are trying to keep as much money in the classroom as possible.”
The lone vote against the transportation increase came from Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson. Bus drivers for the Mat-Su Borough School District went on strike more than a month earlier this year over unsafe conditions and low pay.
Other provisions in the bill written by the Senate Education Committee that would set up a dashboard for school funding and improve reporting requirements were left unchanged.
The underlying legislation advanced without objection. Its next stop will be the Senate floor, which could poise the bill to potentially pass this session. Similar legislation is currently in the House Finance Committee, a step away from a vote on the House floor.
Sen. Tobin told the committee she’s committed to seeing the bill pass this year.
There is a week left in the legislative session.
Follow the thread: Senate Finance amends and approves BSA bill
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Wait, but aren’t schools swimming in money?
While there seems to be a general agreement among most legislators that schools are in deep financial trouble with years of flat funding, soon-to-be-expiring covid-19 money and spiking inflation, not everyone is on board, far from it.
We have legislators who are just generally antagonistic toward public schools and don’t want to fund them no matter the fiscal cliff they’re facing. Still, there’s another group that seems to deny outright there’s a problem in the first place.
And the Dunleavy administration is fueling that notion with documents like the one above (link here), distributed just as the Legislature was really picking up steam on increasing education funding. Taken at face value, the sheet seems to suggest districts are flush with cash—identifying pots of covid money, budget reserves and money set aside for building and repairing schools—contradicting much of what we’ve heard from administrators and school advocates for the last several months.
It’s the sort of bait that conservative legislators already prone to distrusting the school districts eat up, as evidenced by Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk—a former teacher—declaring in a House Finance Committee hearing in late April that he can’t support putting additional money into schools until districts come clean.
“The real frustrating thing for me here is just getting an honest answer out of anything. I look at all these numbers and think, ‘How much money do they really have?’” I think that’s the struggle,” he said. “Until there’s some transparency here, this makes it very difficult for me to sit here and say, ‘I want to give you more money for your BSA.’”
The big caveat with all of that, however, is this minuscule footnote:
As of June 30, 2022. 2022!
TEN MONTHS AGO.
The covid-19 funding is a tad more recent as of December 2022 and doesn’t cover the third quarter reimbursements from school districts, meaning a fair bit of that money has already been spent, and a fair bit more will be spent before the next budget year.
Of course, like with many things in the Dunleavy administration, the document paints a limited and, frankly, wildly out-of-date picture of the state of the school budgets. That’s because, as several other members of the House Finance Committee noted, the state law only requires districts to report their budget numbers to the state at a few points throughout the year. And it only looks at the amount of covid-19 money spent quarterly, with the Anchorage School District noting that it hadn’t submitted any reimbursement requests since December and wouldn’t be submitting those requests until the end of April, and it would expect it to be in the tens of millions.
Even fellow Republican Rep. Will Stapp pointed out that he wasn’t exactly sure where all the problems were coming from because the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District was forthcoming with their numbers when he asked for them.
“I actually have fairly detailed information from my school district,” he said, noting that the Fairbanks school district only has about $4.3 million available to it when the state’s document pegged the district’s available funds at $16.1 million. “I don’t really know where the big discrepancy here is, but when I asked, I got an itemized list of where all our district’s accountability was.”
Deputy Education Commissioner Lacey Sanders essentially shrugged off the criticism, noting they were reporting the most recent information that the state collects. Everyone should have known, she said, that the sheet contained an asterisk that the data was current as of the start of the year.
“I think the only thing I will comment on is the districts have more current information. This is the information they provide the audited financial statements as of June 30,” she told Stapp. “The school districts are the ones that should be communicating to legislators and the public about what their fund balances are now.”
(Which would then raise the question of why the state’s involved at all.)
“So just for clarification,” Stapp continued, “this information is from the audited financials nearly a year ago?”
“Yes,” Sanders replied.
The committee later heard from several school districts that all essentially reported the same thing: That the document being circulated by the Dunleavy administration and used by some legislators as a reason to deny the need for a BSA increase was, in fact, wildly out of date and not at all representative of the current fiscal situation facing school districts.
Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, summed up the situation well: “I don’t think the department understands the true needs of the districts.”