Controversial minimum enrollment bill may not be proposed after all
In an effort to trim state spending, Rep. Lynn Gattis said this fall that she’d consider introducing a bill to raise minimum enrollment for Alaska schools — an idea that met with major backlash from rural communities and small districts statewide. Now, though, it seems unlikely that her proposal will even go before the state legislature.
That’s because Gattis — a Republican from Wasilla — has not filed such a bill despite the start of the legislative session. She said she “doesn’t know” if she’ll go forward with her idea, which sought to increase the number of students each school needs for state funding from 10 to 20 or 25.
Gattis said the proposal is probably too contentious to get the support it needs, especially in a campaign year.
“I do not think something like that would pass this year, but I do think that it raises the conversation,” she said. “And I think people are afraid, but it gets them to the table.”
Getting education advocates to the table may have been Gattis’ goal all along. She said she wants to start a statewide conversation on how Alaska can reduce education spending in the face of its dismal finances.
And whether it be minimum enrollment or another method, Gattis said something’s going to have to change.
“What I do know is that we need to find a solution,” she said. “And the ‘#SmallSchoolsMatter. That can’t be on the table’— ithas to be on the table. And people shouldn’t be fearful of it.”
But with some 60 small schools threatened statewide, people certainly were. Nome Public Schools passed a resolution against the idea with the support of the Nome City Council, while the Bering Strait School District passed a resolution of its own. Both districts have schools that would face closure under Gattis’ proposal: the Diomede School in BSSD, and the youth facility and correspondence school in Nome.
Nome Superintendent Shawn Arnold knows the legislature will look to cut some education funding, but he said financial panic doesn’t mean the state should balance its budget at the expense of Alaska students.
“One of the comments one of the legislators made recently is that there’s not going to be any sacred cows, including education. But my standpoint is that education is an investment in our future,” he said. “Times are tough right now, but eventually things are going to recover, and we need our kids to be prepared.”
With the session just starting, state legislators have until April to figure out how education funding fits into Alaska’s budget. If proposed and passed, a bill to raise minimum enrollment could save the state around $6 million — less than one percent of the overall budget.
This story was originally published by KNOM Radio Mission and was republished here with permission.
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