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In Alaska, budget crisis renews fight for education spending

By Rhonda McBride Photojournalist: Rachel McPherron - 7:41 AM January 6, 2015

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones strategizing for the upcoming session. Leaders from a group called Great Alaska Schools are meeting regularly to renew their fight for education.

As of December, the group was about 2,700 members strong. It’s made up of parents from around the state, who joined forces last session to push for increases in an education funding formula known as the Base Student Allocation (BSA).

Many education advocates credit the group’s boisterous rallies last session for putting pressure on the Legislature, which finally approved three years of spending increases for education.

In the current fiscal year, the BSA went up by $150 to $5,830. It will go up $50 more in each of the following two years. Lawmakers also beefed up spending in other areas, such as charter schools and homeschooling.

Organizers for Great Alaska Schools say the funding wasn’t enough to keep up with inflation, but they don’t plan to ask the Legislature for more money this year.

“We’re facing such a budget crisis in this state, that’s not realistic,” said Deena Mitchell with Great Alaska Schools.

Instead, Mitchell says, the goal will be to maintain last year’s increases.

“Keep the money there, so at least we can maintain the staffing levels we have now,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have to go through that pain every year, and we can start to stabilize that a bit.”

The group says school districts have not only lost teachers in recent years but support staffers like librarians and nurses.

Some who are skeptical about those claims, point to the Anchorage School District’s $22-million budget surplus for the current fiscal year.

Alyse Galvin, one of the founders of the grassroots education movement, says that number is misleading.

“It’s not that we’re flush. We’re having trouble spending it the way we want to spend it, because people don’t want to work for ASD,” said Galvin, who points out the surplus resulted from the district’s inability to fill positions, as well as lower salaries, paid to new and inexperienced teachers.

Galvin says the group plans to spend a lot of effort this year educating the public about the need to maintain funding, even if it means dipping into reserves. She says road projects can be delayed, but education for children can’t be put on hold.

“We cannot let this problem fall on the backs of our children for the next few years,” Galvin said. “If we do, we can’t get that back.”

Galvin adds that if children miss out on three or four years of quality education, then the state loses the workforce that it needs years down the line.

But this session, lawmakers are faced with some of the worst budget shortfalls in history — $3.5 billion for the current fiscal year and $3 billion for the next one.

“I would count it a win if we get through the session and not have any further cuts or rollbacks to education,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat who is the incoming Senate Minority Leader, as well as a member of the education committee.

“Clearly, everybody needs to tighten their belts,” said Gardner. “I think the whole state needs to have a big conversation about what we’re going to do,” said Gardner. “It isn’t just this year. We can’t wait. We have got to take some really dramatic steps right now.”

Gardner believes the state needs to look for new sources of revenue for education, whether it’s new taxes or tapping Permanent Fund earnings.

Sen. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican who will serve as Senate President in the coming session, says he’s committed to last session’s spending increases. But Meyer stopped short of looking for new revenue for education.

“If you start focusing on additional revenue, you lose sight of what you need to do on the spending side,” said Meyer. “Until we have our spending under control and get the budget as lean as we possibly can, you’re not going to see us talk about those other revenue sources.”

Business leaders like Andrew Halcro, a former state representative and president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, says this year’s crisis presents an opportunity to take a new approach.

“The administration and the Legislature need to sit down and actually talk about a long-range vision and plan for education,” said Halcro. “And that doesn’t take any resources. It just takes time and energy.”

Halcro says he thinks the key is to begin making decisions based on data, “not ideology.”

“Then you can go back to the taxpayers and show them the money is well-invested, long before you start to talk about additional taxes or fees,” he said.

But even if lawmakers allow last year’s funding increases to stand, there are other budget pressures.

Gov. Bill Walker has asked all department heads to look for cuts ranging from five to eight percent — and to analyze the impacts. He’s given them a Jan. 10 deadline to report back to him.

Education Commissioner Mike Hanley says if a 5-percent cut were enacted, it would do away with his entire agency, ­ and half of that is federally funded. The department also oversees state libraries and museums, as well as nutrition programs.

Hanley says 95 percent of the department’s $1.2 billion budget goes out to school districts in the form of grants that pay for schools. He says it would be impossible to maintain the Legislature’s three-year increases with a 5-percent cut.

“For us, the vision is to do everything we can to protect the funding that goes to our kids and our schools,” Hanley said. “It’s going to be tough this time.”

The governor has said the education is a priority for his administration, but no department will be held harmless. Walker is also considering putting six mega-projects on hold to reduce capital spending.

The budget last year was built on a forecast of oil prices holding steady at $105 a barrel, but in recent months, prices have fallen to about half that amount.

Anchorage lawmakers will hold a public hearing on Saturday at the Loussac Library in the Anchorage Assembly’s chambers from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

The purpose of the meeting is to give constituents a chance to weigh in on the budget crisis before they head to Juneau. The session starts on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

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