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While some Alaska school funding increases, basic per-student formula remained flat

Pat Forgey
Many Alaska educators blame lawmakers for once again not increasing the per-student amount districts get through the state's education funding formula. Loren Holmes photo

JUNEAU -- Schools didn't get what they wanted in next year's $1.25 billion education budget, but the political leaders who could have provided more say Alaska’s public schools still got something extra.

While signing state budgets on Tuesday, Gov. Sean Parnell said Alaska is spending more than ever on education next year.

But Alaska educators told lawmakers what they really need is an increase in what’s known as the "base student allocation," the per-student amount districts get through the state's education funding formula. They tried to drum home that message through their school boards, teachers, education organizations and student visits to Juneau.

"The schools need operating dollars," said Sue Hull, president of the Association of Alaska School Boards.

Hull is on the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board, and said that funding hasn't kept up with growing costs. That’s forcing school districts to cannibalize some programs to keep the basics going.

Parnell and legislative leaders were reluctant to spend more, saying they need to prepare Alaskans to live with less in anticipation of reduced oil production and fewer oil tax dollars.

"Putting more money in education, we didn't feel was the answer," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski.

Instead, that base student allocation number stayed the same again this year. But after weeks of deadlock among legislative negotiators, an agreement was reached on an extra $21 million for school safety and security, money added to the capital budget in the session's final hours.

That wasn't enough for Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, and a leader on education issues in the small House Democratic caucus.

"The state is responsible for funding education, and they're doing a miserable job," she said.

The Anchorage School Board, of which she was once a member, had to slash hundreds of jobs to cope with rising costs that state funding failed to cover, she said.

One of those opposing the base student allocation increase was Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak. He said the extra safety-and-security money will free up other school district funds that can be funneled to the classroom.

That's something that's been happening in recent years, with the Legislature targeting specific school costs instead of adding money to the formula. One year the focus was public transportation. Another year, it was rising energy costs. This year, that one-time help is directed at security. Appropriating it will be divided among districts on a per-student basis. "A dollar is a dollar, whether or not it is run through a formula," Stoltze said.

The state's largest districts, including Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su, are supposed to spend the money on safety and security, while the smaller districts can also spend it on energy and other fixed costs.

Stoltze said his local districts had some big costs for security, such as cameras and better locking security doors.

The state Department of Education and Early Development will be distributing the money, but it will be up to the local districts to decide on what it can be spent, he said.

"I don't think you are going to see a lot of checking" on how the money gets spent, Stoltze said.

Hull said that's not what Fairbanks has found. She said Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, attended her school board meeting last week and told them things they wanted to spend the money on wouldn't qualify because they were ongoing expenses.

While Fairbanks needs some security improvements, that's not the district's top need.

"There are ways we can improve our security, but I think we need to keep that in perspective," Hull said. "We're not taking dollars that are necessary for basic education for our students and put more cameras and locks everywhere," she said.

Parnell said that while the base student allocation didn't increase, there were other education funding increases -- including ongoing funding for the Alaska Performance Scholarship program he championed, construction of new schools as part of a legal settlement with rural residents and full funding for the education formula.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the total increase in education spending was $58 million. On top of that is more than $300 million to catch up with retirement contributions that were not made in previous years. State officials say they have no choice but to meet those obligations.

Contact Pat Forgey at pat(at)alaskadispatch.com