Juneau school superintendent says Legislature is ‘using kids as pawns’

In a surprise move Tuesday, a legislative conference committee stripped close to $13 million in public education funding.

The House and Senate Operating Budget Conference Committee removed a $50 increase to the Base Student Allocation that’s required by statute in an education reform package passed in 2014.

The six-member conference committee is made up of Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, and Chair Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks. Gara, the lone minority member, was the only one to object and vote no on the motion.

Previous to this committee, both the House and the Senate had the $50 BSA increase included in the operating budget.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that at this late in the game, something like this did happen,” Rep. Chris Tuck said on the House Floor Tuesday. “We are circumventing the public process by not ever having school districts, parents, teachers and students be able to discuss and talk about a potential cut like this.”

Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller agreed. Not getting the increase means a $500,000 hole in the budget.

“To not have any committee discussion on it or allow any public input, it feels like we’re using kids as pawns in a political chess game, and I find that morally reprehensible,” he said on the phone Wednesday morning.

Many legislators did not see the move coming, not even members of the Republican majority. Juneau Republican Rep. Cathy Muñoz called it an “unusual maneuver.”

“Many of us, myself included, were taken by surprise,” she said on the phone Wednesday, “and so a group of legislators are working together to try to get that restored.”

Muñoz said several members — including Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and others she called “the more moderate faction of the caucus” — are working hard to get the conference committee to rescind the action.

There’s another way to get it restored, Muñoz said. She said the majority is trying to get support from the minority to fund the operating budget by accessing the Constitutional Budget Reserve, something the minority has been unwilling to do.

“It would take a three-quarter vote and so in order to get a three-quarter vote, the minority will want certain things added back,” Muñoz said.

With the session in its last day, she said the political process can be “messy, but it’s all part of the endgame and all I can say is that I’m doing everything I can to get the BSA restored.”

Juneau Democratic Representative Sam Kito III called taking away the $50 BSA increase “disingenuous.”

“It’s just trying to put us under pressure in the Minority, and it’s a direct affront to the students, teachers and school districts in Alaska,” he said.

JSD Superintendent Miller said he’s not sure what the district will do if the stripped BSA goes through. He said 90 percent of funding goes to personnel, and cuts to that can’t be made at this point.

“We’ve already offered contracts to the people we would’ve had to lay off,” he said.

Miller also said he’s also not going to get completely worked up about the BSA cut until it actually goes through.

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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