Firming up the specifics of competing House and Senate proposals to increase public education funding took a key step forward Wednesday as the House Education Committee approved a bill increasing the per-student formula by $800 (about 13.4%) during the next two years, compared to a Senate bill with a two-year increase of $1,348 (22.6%).
Both bills would make the first significant increases since 2017 to the base student allocation that’s currently $5,960. Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing no BSA increase in his budget for next year, but has stated some kind of increase will likely be agreed to during negotiations this session.
The current House and Senate bills, which have now been referred to their respective finance committees as the last step before a floor vote, don’t necessarily represent the floor and ceiling of a BSA increase approved by legislators. But both bills now take a multiyear approach intended to help districts planning future budgets and/or address inflation, following an amendment by Rep. Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat, to change the House bill from a one-year hike to two-year increase.
House Bill 65, introduced by Rep. Dan Ortiz, a Ketchikan independent, proposed a $1,250 increase starting during the next fiscal year that appeared to have little chance of passage in the Republican-led House Education Committee. But an attempt by Anchorage Republican Tom McKay to reduce the increase to $150 was defeated by a 3-4 vote as Republican Justin Ruffridge of Soldotna, who co-chairs the committee, joined the three non-Republican members opposing the cut.
That was followed by Story’s proposal to increase the BSA by $1,150 during the next fiscal year and an additional $348 the following year. She said the multiyear timeline is because “we have heard over and over again how they need predictability and stability that accounts for rising costs and also to meet the needs of our students.”
“Having a two-year planning window allows for that predictability,” she said. “It’s common for the Legislature to not complete our budget work until May. School districts usually have to draft their budgets much earlier to provide certainty.”
The Juneau Board of Education earlier this month approved a proposed budget for next year that — lacking a firm number — relies on a $430 BSA increase.
Ruffridge, while supporting the multiyear concept, proposed lowing the BSA increase to $680 next year and an additional $120 the following year.
“That happens to be, I think, the number that has been made by my own school district for what is helpful to them to maintain their budget without reducing class size, as well as not shutting down athletics, theaters and pools,” he said. “This would be a middle-ground approach in my opinion.”
Opposition to the reduction was voiced by Rep. C.J. McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, who said districts in rural Alaska are lacking basic necessities and thus need more funds than urban areas. But he acknowledged the political reality of what a majority of legislators might approve meant he would vote for the change.
“If this is the only way forward I understand that,” he said. But “I feel like I’m being asked to drive from Bethel on a snow machine to the Yukon on a quarter-tank of gas.”
Story also expressed a reluctant acceptance of the reduction, stating she hopes the amount will increase during subsequent legislative hearings. The amendment as modified by Ruffridge passed by a 5-2 vote, with McKay and co-chair Jamie Allard, an Eagle River Republican, opposing. The bill was then advanced out of committee by a matching vote.
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