Alaska education funding dispute sees pink slips, profound concern in rural schools

Kenny Knutson / KTUU
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The ongoing education funding dispute between the Legislature and the administration is causing concern among school districts across the state, particularly those in rural Alaska that rely solely on state funding for K-12 education.

While July 1 is the deadline to pass an operating budget, school districts will be looking closely at July 15, the date the State of Alaska is scheduled to release the first month of school funding for fiscal year 2020.

The Legislature is preparing to move legal action forward if the governor does not release those funds. According to Kevin Clarkson, the Alaska Attorney General, the governor is unable to do that as the Legislature has not included an appropriation item in its operating budget.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, who chairs the Legislative Council, said Wednesday that schools had already been forward funded and this was a separation of powers issue.

He said lawmakers would not do anything until, and if, the governor did not release funds. Legislators would then most likely sue the administration and ask the court for a preliminary injunction, requiring the first one or two months of school funding to be released.

According to school administrators across Alaska, if those funds aren’t released, school districts in unincorporated cities and boroughs will be the hardest hit.

Regional Education Attendance Area (REAA) schools are solely funded by the state and only carry small cash reserves says Norm Wooten, the executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards.

In many instances, those reserves would be quickly exhausted paying wages and ordering supplies for the upcoming school year, a period when most school maintenance is also done.

“If funds are withheld for one month, two months, school will reopen but it throws chaos into the system,” Wooten said. “It will undoubtedly cause extra funding to come out of the classroom to be spent to straighten out that chaos and make schools start.”

“At the very best it creates chaos, at the very worst, schools don’t open,” he said.

Daniel Walker, the superintendent of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, said if the funds are not released, “It is setting up to be a pretty major disaster.” The Lower Kuskokwim School District is the largest REAA district in the state, administering 27 schools, 22 of which are in remote areas.

Compared to other rural districts, the Lower Kuskokwim School District has more resources, but also major challenges. Close to a million gallons of fuel is barged up in spring to heat schools the following winter, the bills need to be paid in July and August, said Walker, meaning funds need to be available.

Wooten says relying on barges for supplies is a challenge facing other districts. Without available cash, administrators may need to use air freight when the school year starts again, drastically raising costs.

Elizabeth Korenek-Johnson, the principal of Nome Elementary School, says the challenge of budget uncertainty is also impacting staffing.

“At this time, we do not know whether we will have the budget for an Early Childhood Education Teacher, or an Elementary School Counselor, as we await a final budget decision from Juneau,” she wrote in an email. “If the approved budget supports these positions, it may be too late to find quality candidates to fill them, and ultimately our students suffer from a lack of services. We love our kids, and do our best to meet their needs, but it is extremely difficult at bare-bones staffing.”

On the road system, school district administrators are no less concerned but there are often more options.

Dr. Deena Bishop, the superintendent with the Anchorage School District, says ASD has a more diversified funding base than some rural schools. Around 39 percent of the district's funds come from local government, around 58 percent comes from the state and 2 percent comes from the federal government.

As one of the city and state’s largest employers with 6,000 staff, ASD also has a real need to maintain reserves which is also required under statute. Bishop says the district has three months of revenue on hand “in case of emergencies.”

She has confidence the dispute between the Legislature and the administration can be solved by the start of the next school year in August.

Despite being state law, sending out layoff notices, known as pink slips, to tenured and non-tenured staff is a decision for each district. A trend in recent years has been to not send them out even if there is budget uncertainty.

ASD decided not to send pinks slips out as the governor and the Legislature have both supported the same funding amount, it’s just the method of funding that differs.

In Juneau and Fairbanks a similar story, Andy DeGraw, the Chief Operating Officer of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, said administrators believed that House Bill 287, passed in 2018, had forward funded schools.

Both districts have reserves on hand to fund schools for at least a couple of months and neither sent out layoff notices to teachers.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and on the Kenai Peninsula, a different story. Jillian Morrissey, the communications director at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, said administrators had sent out 170 plus notices to non-tenured staff in mid-May.

“The District Administration has been evaluating its options and potential solutions if State funding is not decided until later this summer,” wrote Morrisey. “This work by administration will continue as the Legislature and the Governor continue the budget process.”

On the Kenai Peninsula, Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said nine teachers were laid off for budgetary reasons and ten were non-retained because they were hired after Oct. 10.

“To date, we’ve had 86 certified staff resign or retire, which is the highest number from the years we can track this data,” she wrote in an email. “Not as many of these are anticipated retirements; several of our valued staff who noted that the fiscal instability of our state and subsequently in our district is why they are leaving.”

Back in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, Walker says he doesn’t dare send out pink slips to teachers unless he absolutely has to, due to the fear they instill in staff.

‘If I send out pink slips, there’s no telling how many classrooms won’t have certified teachers at the start of the next school year,” said Walker.

Editor’s note: Daniel Walker was originally stated as the superintendent of Bering Strait School District, instead of the Lower Kuskokwim School District.
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