Dunleavy budget vetoes, legislative turmoil hitting Alaska's education system hard
Even after lawmakers in Juneau failed Wednesday to garner enough votes to reverse Gov. Mike Dunleavy's vetoes, the Anchorage School District and the University of Alaska system are continuing to urge legislators to override the budget cuts by Friday.
If not overridden, school representatives say the negative impacts will be huge.
Even scholarship programs that seemed safe from the governor's cuts, have been swept away amid turmoil in the 2019 Legislature.
'No employee is safe'
During a teleconference Wednesday, UA President Jim Johnsen said legislators could reconsider overrides to the proposed budget vetoes over the next several days.
"There is still a glimmer or a ray of hope for that. Failing that, my understanding is they will be considering some other possibility for funding for some of the organizations negatively affected by the vetoes,” he said. “Whether that's base money, or one-time money, whether how much money it is, when that happens, all of that is a big question mark and uncertain at this point."
Johnsen said the university will plan ahead as if the overrides were unsuccessful.
In regard to layoffs, Johnsen said no employee is safe.
“Yes, I think layoffs can be anticipated, even in the best case, even if the vetoes were overwritten we were planning to reduce personnel and so we have already sent out furlough notices to 2,500 staff across the UA system and as soon as we get a little bit more clarity about the funding situation I imagine or I expect we will be sending out layoff notices."
UA is looking at eliminating entire campuses and cutting programs not essential to their core mission. This means increasing class sizes and instructional workload for staff, on top of workforce reductions.
Johnsen said the university is working on finalizing their financial analysis to present to the University of Alaska Board of Regents. On Monday, July 15, the board is meeting about a declaration of financial exigency and which strategic options would be best for dramatic, rapid cost reduction.
A final decision on those options will be made on July 30.
Students left to foot the bill
According to a letter from the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, as of July 5 funding for the Alaska Performance Scholarships, the Alaska Education Grant and the WWAMI program required additional legislation in order for money to be available.
Until that happens, there will not be funding for fiscal year 2020.
Johnsen says the university has many privately funded, endowed scholarships available to students. However, students who received performance scholarships and relied on state education grant programs to help them pay for college might now be without funding.
UAA senior Alicia Washington said she was supposed to go to Southern A&M in Louisiana and that she also was accepted to Texas A&M. The scholarships she received from UA kept her in Alaska.
"It kinda just sucks because like everything we were promised, we're not getting. It's my last year, I have one more year and now there is the possibility that I'm not going to be able to pay for it," she said.
Dontae Robertson, a junior at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is also weighing his options. He also relied on performance scholarships — earned by taking extra credits and keeping up his GPA in high school — to help fund his education.
"It'll be way more difficult to attend school, because even now, even with APS scholarship, I'm still having to work full-time to cover up that extra $2,000 difference that's not covered through them," he said. "So, if it's all the way gone that's $4,000 needing to be worked to pay off in five months, which is pretty hard doing that and maintaining 15 credits."
The University of Washington School of Medicine's regional medical education program, known as WWAMI, also had its funding swept away. The program, offered in-state at UAA, is intended to train medical students for service in Alaska.
"This is the main way that we're able to give Alaskans both access to medical school and to replace the physicians that we lose," said Jeff Jessee, dean of UAA's College of Health. "If the funding is not restored, one way or another, the WWAMI medical school program will go away."
If the program goes away, experts fear so will Alaska's students who strive to be physicians within the state.
"Alaska students that want to become physicians will have to compete nationwide to get into any medical school," Jessee said. "And then we'll be forced to spend large amounts of money to recruit out-of-state physicians to come to Alaska."
It's possible the scholarships and grants for students and funding for WWAMI could be be restored later this month. However, that would require a divided legislature to find common ground.
More cuts, less stability
Dunleavy’s vetoes aren’t just affecting the university — they’re impacting the Anchorage School District as well.
By reducing the school bond debt reimbursement by nearly $49 million, Dunleavy is forcing the district to pick up costs of about $20 million, according to budget documents.
After the Alaska House and Senate joint session failed to override Dunleavy's vetoes on Wednesday, Anchorage School Board President Starr Marsett said the district is getting ready to prepare for the worst while reviewing different school programs that may feel the cut.
“That will be sports, activities," Marsett said. "The last thing we want to cut are our teachers in the classroom so we will be looking at things outside the classroom first, I'm assuming. It will be a board decision and what our guidance will be to the administration and how we want to prepare our budget. But everything will be on the table."
School Board member Deena Mitchell said officials are most concerned about what will happen in 2021.
"That is the concern that we all have come fiscal year 2021," she said. "This Legislature did try to forward-fund public education K through 12 funding for the next fiscal year and that is one of the items the governor vetoed. It's just like other businesses: having steady predictability in income and knowing how we can plan a couple of years out, so we aren't having a seesaw of 'Do we need to lay people off? Do we need to cut programs?'"
Mitchell said that each year that passes with more cuts has teachers looking for jobs elsewhere. Educators have expressed frustration over being pink-slipped multiple times, leading to uncertainties about signing a mortgage or enrolling their own children in the district.
"Those things have happened and they will continue to happen until we really start providing some long-term stability," Mitchell said. "And the bottom line is that we can. These are values choices that we're making. It's not a lack of resources, it's a lack of where we are putting our priorities."
Board President Marsett is still hopeful lawmakers will come together and hold another vote for budget vetoes to be overridden.
"As a school board, we would urge them to be able to come together to do this in support of education, students and families," she said.
The district's budget will have to be presented to the municipality in March, so Marsett said the board will start work on it in August.
The second-largest impact of the school bond debt reimbursement reduction will be $9.2 million to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.
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