February 23, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 7

Local parents, educators rally behind funding bill

The Haines Borough school board, parents and supporters are spreading the word far and wide - in letters, on Facebook and on blogs - that school funding is a critical issue this year and that they support the passage of a bill in the Alaska Legislature to increase the base student allocation.

Senate Bill 171 passed the Senate two weeks ago, just as Haines school superintendent Michael Byer and several school board members arrived in Juneau as part of the statewide legislative fly-in organized by the Alaska Association of School Boards. Haines school board members Brenda Jones, Sean Cone, Nelle Jurgeleit-Greene and student Zeke Franks joined Byer in visiting legislators and visiting the Capitol to speak with lawmakers about a range of educational issues.

But funding is the primary focus for most Alaska schools and education supporters this season. The bill in the legislature would increase the base student allocation for the next three years. For the Haines school district, the bill would mean an extra $91,500 in state funding for fiscal year 2013, $95,107 in 2014 and $98,764 in 2015. Those estimates from the state Department of Education rely on enrollment projections remaining the same, said Byer.

But that extra funding could go to reducing the amount of reserves the Haines school district is anticipating having to use to fill a gap in revenues and expenditures. Byer has said he estimates in fiscal year 2013 having to use about half of the district’s $472,000 reserves to cover the gap, if the governor’s proposed “flat-funding” of education holds.

Even with the Senate’s action, the bill’s fate is now uncertain. It currently sits in the House finance committee where a hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, is co-chair of that committee, but has not definitively stated whether he supports the bill or not. In e-mails with Thomas’ legislative aide on education issues, Pete Ecklund, he said that data show “Alaska invests over $2.8 billion in K-12 education, or $22,000 per student.”

“Many in the house, along with the governor, are asking for accountability for that $2.8 billion investment. What results are we getting? The graduation rate has been improving, but still stands at 68 precent statewide,” Ecklund wrote.

“Rep. Thomas is open to hearing the legislation in committee and looks forward to the discussion of what results we can expect from the proposed additional K-12 investment. He was elected by his colleagues to look over the entire state operating budget, and is responsible for making sure we make wise investments with an eye towards looming state deficits.”

Gov. Sean Parnell was more direct in his assessment of the bill. He claimed that while his proposed budget did not increase funding, he was not “flat-funding” education because he is supportive of a one-year funding increase to schools to help offset higher operating expenses. But he does not support the Senate’s approval of base student allocation increases and called it the “ultimate giveaway,” a characterization school officials took issue with.

“It kind of hurts,” Byer said. “There are a lot of hard working people in education. I know he’s trying to protect the budget and guard reserves. But I don’t think that it’s a great characterization.”

Byer said much of the increase in costs for Haines schools in the coming years are costs that cannot be controlled like increasing energy prices and step increases for staff that have already been negotiated. Other districts in the state have said without passage of SB 171, personnel will be laid off, including 95 staff in Fairbanks, 88 in Anchorage and 66 in Juneau, according to the association of school boards.

Additionally, the timing of the funding debate is sensitive. Districts like to offer current teachers new contracts for the next school year beginning in the spring, but without funding assurances, schools often have to put off securing teachers until the end of the school year and into the summer.

Byer has written letters to the governor, Thomas and all 12 members of the house finance committee. The school board sent similar letters and passed a resolution in support of increased funding. The borough assembly is expected to pass a similar resolution at its Feb. 28 meeting.

But school officials are not the only ones putting pen to paper in support of the legislation. school board member Nelle Jurgeleit-Greene organized a letter-writing campaign in support of SB 171 on Facebook. Local parent Sara Chapell has started a blog called “Haines Mama” to spread the word about the education funding issue. She said she’d been recently attending borough and school board meetings and came to find out more about how the budget process works each year for the schools.

“It occurred to me that our school had gone through the same song and dance every year and we don’t know what we’re getting from the legislature until the very, very end of the session,” Chapell said. “From my perspective, from a parent perspective, I want to convince the legislature to think of the schools first before going on to make other legislative decisions. When it comes to school I want the money to get to the districts. Schools know what to do with it and that’s when good things start to happen. And that’s what we’ve seen in Haines.”