Senators say education funding is 'completely unacceptable' and bemoan lack of specifics

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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) — Senate Democrats say that education funding in the governor’s proposed FY2020 budget is “completely unacceptable” and may breach a provision in the Alaska constitution that requires the state to provide adequate funding for schools across Alaska.

The budget calls for more than $300 million in state funding to be cut from education spending. Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said that figure is “completely unacceptable” and that it represented a cut of around 25 percent to the department’s budget.

Donna Arduin, the Office of Management and Budget Director, told the committee that the total figure does not include $500 million in already-existing local government funding that would shrink the percentage of the reduction.

Heidi Teshner, the Administrative Services Director for the Department of Education and Early Development, told the Senate Finance Committee Monday that the governor’s budget would see a reduction to the Base Student Allocation to $4,880 per student - a drop of $1,050.

When questioned by the co-chair of senate finance, Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, Teshner said the department’s records show that the BSA has never been reduced and only raised.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D - Anchorage, asked the education commissioner whether wide-scale cuts would breach the Alaska Constitution as it requires the state "maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the state."

“No one at the Department of Law has indicated that to me since the budget came out," Dr. Michael Johnson, the education commissioner, responded.

Wielchowski said after the committee hearing that he has requested legal advice from the nonpartisan Legislative Affairs Agency to hear its determination.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, described to the committee that the burden of school funding would be passed on to local governments, but there is a statutory cap in place that limits their ability to increase funding.

Federal law prevents a disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest districts in a state to 25 percent. The local government cap prevents that disparity from growing to a point that risks federal funding.

Micciche suggested that the proposed reduction in state spending would result in increased class sizes with a 40-44 student-to-teacher ratio. “Mr. Commissioner, think about your child in a classroom with 44 kids,” Micciche said, before asking, “can we adequately deliver an educational product with 44 kids per classroom?”

“Any reduction in funding is going to be difficult to everyone. There are not easy answers before us,” Johnson said, before continuing, “class sizes will vary district to district, and those unique settings, I can’t anticipate how each district, or how each classroom will respond if these reductions are passed.”

On school debt reimbursement, Michael Barnhill, the policy director at the Office of Management and Budget, said the budget proposes a drop of $100 million from around $215 million under Gov. Bill Walker.

The change would require the Legislature to repeal statutes that called for the debts to be repaid.

Barnhill said that a moratorium had been in place for new bonds being issued until FY2021, but the change would affect debts that have been incurred by districts that "do go back a ways." He explained that the inventory of outstanding debt is $900 million.

Some Senate Republicans questioned the lack of specifics in the governor’s proposed reductions to education spending.

Co-chair of senate finance, Sen. Natasha von Imhof, R-Anchorage, said the Office of Management and Budget should have looked into employee benefits, which have grown in the last decade as the “highest cost driver” for education spending.

“Maybe, a better approach would have been, let us help you with your highest cost driver, and see if we as a state could come up with a solution that makes sense, that helps everybody. I’m not really hearing that,” von Imhof said.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, echoed von Imhoff’s comments using an analogy of the education department as a client and the Senate Finance Committee as bankers: “You haven’t made a very good case why I should loan you some money.”

Arduin said the governor’s proposed budget is the first step in a process as the administration works with the Legislature to find ways to balance the budget.

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