Gov. Mike Dunleavy may have averted a government shutdown by signing the state’s operating budget last week, but at what cost?

Dunleavy cut deeper than the $190 million in the budget lawmakers sent to him, reducing another $444 million including federal funds and agency spending.

The biggest cuts were to education, where Dunleavy took millions away from the University of Alaska system and slashed school bond debt reimbursement, affecting the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough school districts.

The campaign promises of a former educator

Shocking. Devastating. Draconian.

Those are words used by University of Alaska officials to describe the cuts to the UA system included in Dunleavy’s budget on Friday.

Of the 182-line item vetoes, the $130 Million cut to the University system is the largest, yet perhaps one of the most unexpected.

To some, the governor's actions are in stark contrast with candidate Dunleavy’s words.

In two KTVA debates, Dunleavy was asked to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether he would make cuts to the UA system.

Anchor: “University of Alaska. Cuts, yes or no?

Dunleavy: “No for now.”

In the second debate, Dunleavy answered, “No plans. Get them land grants for funding."

While he didn’t provide voters with a yes or no answer as requested, he also did not hint at the unprecedented cuts his red pen delivered Friday.

Education funding uncertainty in Alaska’s school districts

While the University of Alaska system is reeling after having its budget reduced in the latest state operating budget, K-12 school districts are also holding their breath into the summer.

"People proudly supported their city schools when they went to the voting booth because the state was in partnership with them, sharing the revenue that the state gets," said Anchorage School District Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop. "And to just say, ‘well, we're changing our mind, we’re gonna, you know, not pay this bill, we’re gonna, you know, do something else with the funds,’ that leaves a little bit of instability in our state."

Bishop is referring to Dunleavy's budget vetoes in the state's operating budget and school bond reimbursement policy.

In 2015, the state stopped reimbursing for new school bonds but continued to honor and help pay down debt from bonds passed years before. Dunleavy has shifted that responsibility from the state to cities and boroughs, which means a potential rise in property taxes.

"Without stability, investment in our state is going to be difficult and certainly this is a sign that we’re a little unstable when we don't pay debt,” she said.

This year, a $48.9 million dollar bond price tag has been dropped on state taxpayers — $20.5 million of which will fall on Anchorage residents and $9.2 million on those who live in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

"I think at this point I could not be surprised by anything," School Board President Starr Marsett said. "Just seeing the way things are going, I know there's a lot of individuals and organizations meeting in Anchorage and throughout the state right now to discuss how they’re going to deal with these vetoes and what happens if they don't get overwritten. So, it's really a scary time right now."

Marsett says ASD is large enough to absorb the hit this year, but other school districts across the state are not as fortunate.

"As a school district we look at every student and we try to provide every option and need to that student to make them successful and without that, I mean, our state is going to suffer,” she said.

Marsett says she expects classroom combinations to form this year, the teacher-student ratio to expand and more cuts across the district.

Cuts to early childhood education

New national statistics on the well-being of children in the U.S. show Alaska near the bottom of the ranks for education. The 2019 Kids Count Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks the state 49th in the category, just ahead of New Mexico.

According to the study, only 37% of Alaskans ages 3 and 4 attended a form of prekindergarten schooling from 2013 to 2017; 64% of the same age group were not in school at all from 2015 to 2017.

To improve numbers, ASD is taking a proactive approach to get more children enrolled in preschool. Getting children in preschool, experts say, will have a long-term positive effect on their learning, pulling Alaska out of the bottom rankings.

But with new budget cuts targeting young children before they get to school, will this new focus have to shift?

Funding cuts to early education grants total $8.8 million. Abbe Hensley is executive director of Best Beginnings, a nonprofit that advocates for early literacy. Hensley said the organization stands to lose all of its state funding — some $320,000 — about half of their total budget.

Hensley called the cuts incredibly disappointing. She said the benefits of investing in children when they are very young can be felt even years down the road.

"They are much more likely to be ready for school with they get there, to be proficient readers by the time they are in third grade, to graduate from high school. To go on and essentially be productive citizens of our state," she said.

At $6.853 million, the governor's biggest cut to early education goes to Head Start programs around the state. The vetoes delete all state funding for the programs.

Dirk Shumaker is executive director of Kids' Corps Head Start in Anchorage. He said the cuts total more than $800,000, which is about 20% of their budget.

"So the impact on us, if we think about that as 20% of our budget, we have 260 kids, because it is an essential part of our funding we could look at 20% of our enrollment going down," Shumaker said. "That's certainly one of the actions that we are looking at."

The Alaska Head Start Association estimates the cuts will have an even bigger impact on programs statewide. The organization estimates the cuts will result in 540 fewer slots in Head Start programs and a loss of about 150 jobs.

The reasons behind it all

While on more than one occasion during the campaign then-candidate Dunleavy had an opportunity to say whether he would make cuts to the UA system and didn’t, press secretary Matt Shuckerow has defended the governor’s actions.

During a phone interview Monday, Shuckerow said the state had a much difference revenue outlook during the debates in question and a drop in the price of oil forced Dunleavy to make different, difficult decisions once in office.

“The governor was very clear that he had not made that determination on what would or wouldn’t be considered, that he wanted to take a look at the full revenue picture, and last summer the revenue picture for the state of Alaska was more than a billion dollars more than we had in December,” Shuckerow said.

Shuckerow said Dunleavy was upfront with voters about the change when he released his proposed budget earlier this year.

“He laid that out upfront to people and let them know what his proposal was, what it would look like, there was a number of hearings, studies done about the impacts, and ultimately, the governor made the final decision as outlined by the Constitution,” Shuckerow said.

Elizabeth Roman and Steve Quinn contributed to this report.

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