Day 65: 'A quarter tank of gas'
The House Education Committee advances a much-reduced BSA bill.
Good afternoon, Alaska! It’s day 65 of the legislative session.
In this edition: After taking five hours of public testimony on school funding, the House Education Committee advanced a much-reduced BSA bill today with several of the committee’s Republicans opining about how the widely supportive testimony shouldn’t count because real Alaskans were busy or bullied away. The Legislature’s unity in opposing pay raises for Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his cabinet is gone now that pay raises are on the table. And the fast-track supplemental budget passed with surprisingly little controversy today, putting much-needed funding to address the state’s SNAP backlog a step closer to becoming a reality.
Current mood: ⛽
‘A quarter tank of gas’
“I feel like I’m being asked to drive from Bethel on a snowmachine to the Yukon on a quarter-tank of gas,” Rep. CJ McCormick on the state of education funding.
The House Education Committee heard roughly five hours of public testimony on a proposal to increase school funding on Tuesday night, attracting support from just about every corner of the state. Less than 12 hours later, the committee’s far-right Republicans were making excuses about why none of that mattered and why schools are, in fact, fine.
“We call it public testimony but a vast majority of the folks who testified last night for five hours were paid school district employees of some sort,” said Anchorage GOP Rep. Tom “My Children Belong to Me” McKay. “Principals, superintendents, teachers, people that make their living off the BSA and the money we send them. … It’s not necessarily true that we were receiving public testimony. I speak for the folks who sit home and work.”
McKay ranted for a while about how schools have no accountability for their academic performance and how the foundation formula—the formula that the BSA is fed through to determine school district need based on things like attendance, location and the needs of the students—is an nefariously indecipherable “black box” that needs to be completely overhauled. He claimed districts have “plenty of money” and that the current financial woes are simply a product of mismanagement by school boards, then moved to cut the overall funding increase from $1,250 to $150.
The measure ultimately and soundly failed, but not before Education Committee co-Chair Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Anchorage, weighed in on the supposed mistreatment of the many, many conservatives who were going to testify against the BSA increase but were allegedly bullied away by some unnamed legislators. At some point in the hearing, she also claimed that teachers aren’t taught how to teach reading to students.
It was a pretty bleak look into the far-right attitudes on school funding, but if you were hoping that school funding escaped their clutches completely untouched then I also have some bad news for you.
Meeting the needs of MY school district
The committee ultimately did vote in favor of advancing the legislation to increase the BSA but not to levels that statewide school advocates say is needed to stem cuts but, instead, at what the school district of the committee’s other co-chair says it needs.
Amending an amendment put forward by Juneau Democratic Rep. Andi Story to roughly mirror the Senate’s proposed increase for the BSA—a $1,348 increase over two years, with $1,000 coming in the first year—committee co-Chair Rep. Justin Ruffridge moved an amendment that would cut the total funding increase to $800.
It comes to a $680 increase to the BSA this year and a second-year increase of $120. The BSA is a figure fed through the state’s foundation formula—a formula that takes into account the size of the district, its location and the needs of its students among other things—to determine the level of funding each district requires.
When asked for his reasoning for the change, Ruffridge conceded that he specifically had the needs of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in mind.
“The $680 number is, actually, in some cases very personal,” he said. “That happens to be, I think, the number that has been made public by my own school district as to what is helpful to them to be able to maintain their education without increasing class sizes as well as closing down athletics, theaters and pools.”
The Alaska Association of School Boards testified at the start of the session that an increase of $860 was the bare minimum needed to keep school districts across the state up with inflation and expiring one-time money. The Senate has advanced legislation that would increase the BSA by $1,348 over two years.
Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat who caucuses with the Republican-led Majority, said he was frustrated to see the cut. While it might sit well with urban districts, he said, it certainly doesn’t sit well with rural Alaska.
“I represent a lot of school districts that lack basic needs that I think some of other school districts that some folks on this committee represent have,” he said. “I think reducing it to this number makes me very uncomfortable. If this is the only way forward, I understand that, but to use an analogy I feel like I’m being asked to drive from Bethel on a snowmachine to the Yukon on a quarter-tank of gas.”
Later during closing comments, McCormick held up a copy of his 2015 high school year book and pointed out that many of the people “who helped me get through school, helped me get here” were no longer at Bethel High School.
Rep. Ortiz, I-Ketchikan and sponsor of the bill, urged legislators to think beyond the bounds of their own legislative districts.
“The logic is sound from the perspective of you being a representative of your particular district, however, the Education Committee as a whole and the Legislature as a whole we don’t just represent our own districts,” he said. “We have needs that are greater than that in some areas of our state. Real education needs. Real needs for the children that walk through the schools in those districts.”
Rep. Ruffridge attempted to later explain his thinking, calling the $680 increase to the BSA a “good-faith effort” to move the process along while respecting the state’s shaky financial position.
“At risk of sounding a little bit selfish, which maybe I did, I understand the duty we have to fund schools throughout all Alaska,” he said, recognizing Rep. McCormick’s comments about rural Alaska. “That’s certainly not my intent with this amendment to make life in rural Alaska any more challenging in regard to education.”
While McCormick, Story and Sitka independent Rep. Rebecca Himschoot could have joined with Rep. Allard, who was voting against anything and everything, to defeat Ruffridge’s amendment, they all voted in favor of the measure in service of advancing the legislation with the hopes that it would be increased in later in the process.
“I’m not in love with this, but I am happy to get it moving,” Himschoot said. “Our job is to get something to Finance and I’m counting on Finance to give this a really close look.”
The Senate Education Committee advanced its version of the BSA bill—which not only calls for a $1,348 increase over two years but ties it to inflation after that—last week. It’s expected to be heard in the Senate Finance Committee sometime next week.
Follow the thread: The House Education Committee advances a scaled-back BSA
The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.