Juneauites testify, ask Alaska Senate to boost school funding

Sitting in front of the Alaska Senate Finance Committee, Juneau schools superintendent Mark Miller held up a Magic 8-Ball.

For the past several years, Miller has had to draft a school budget proposal before knowing how much money the Alaska Legislature will provide. He told lawmakers he’s tried using charts and analysis, then he settled upon the device he bought from a thrift store.

“I joke, but it’s not really funny,” Miller said. “It’s hard to know that we have $40 billion sitting in a (Permanent Fund) savings account, and we’re arguing about how many $40,000 single-mother teachers we’re going to lay off next year.”

[PHOTOS: Juneauites testify before Alaska Senate on school funding]

In public testimony Friday morning, Miller was among more than two dozen Juneau residents who urged the committee to approve a spending plan that provides reliable, increased funding for Alaska’s public school system.

Many said that flat-funding state schools is effectively a budget cut because inflation (including the rising cost of health care) is absorbed by districts, forcing programs to end and staff to be laid off.

“I have witnessed many d— good teachers receive pink slips,” retired schoolteacher Gene Randall said in public testimony.

“Continued flat funding for our schools means our schools have less each year,” Juneau school board member Brian Holst said.

[School district budget cut another $3.5M]

Accompanying the call for higher per-student funding was a notion that the Legislature should provide surety to school districts either through a long-term funding bill or a process that finishes the education budget earlier than other budgets.

Many municipal fiscal years begin July 1, and in order for local governing bodies to approve municipal budgets by that date, they must have school district budgets by early April. Because the Legislature provides much of the funding for school districts, and it is not known how much the Legislature will allocate in a given year, administrators predict a worst-case scenario and restore funds as the Legislature allocates them.

Budgeting for a worst-case scenario typically involves layoffs, which stresses teachers, students and communities, lawmakers were told.

On Thursday, senators had unveiled their version of Alaska’s state operating, mental health and education budgets. The Senate’s version of the state spending plan includes the same $1,600 Permanent Fund Dividend as the House’s proposal, but it differs in other details.

A handful of callers asked for the Senate to support funding for state museums. The House budget includes almost $106,000 for a state grant program; the Senate budget does not include that.

Others asked for boosted funding for the University of Alaska. The House budget plan calls for $19 million in funding increases above what had been proposed by Gov. Bill Walker. The Senate’s plan calls for $5 million above the governor’s number.

Walker himself said in a press release that he was pleased the House and Senate had agreed on an amount for the Permanent Fund Dividend, but he was alarmed that the Senate had cut proposed increases in public safety funding.

Before the Empire’s press deadline, no one had mentioned on the biggest difference between the House and Senate plans: The Senate has proposed a multibillion-dollar backdated shift of funds from the Alaska Permanent Fund to the Constitutional Budget Reserve, an idea the House had not considered.

The House proposed giving the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation the ability to accept up to $1 billion in investments from corporations and banks for the proposed trans-Alaska natural gas pipeline; the Senate did not.

The House proposed inflation-proofing the Alaska Permanent Fund with $942 million; the Senate did not. (Both bodies have proposed less inflation-proofing than the governor and Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation board of trustees requested.)

There also was no testimony on the Senate’s proposal to boost oil and gas tax credit payments by $135 million. The state owes as much as $1 billion to oil and gas companies; the House proposed a $49 million payment on that debt. The Senate has proposed a $184 million payment.

Above all of this was the discussion about education.

“It all boils down to one thing: Our education is in your hands,” said Josh Keaton of Juneau. “The quality of our education is really with you.”

Testimony was continuing in the committee as of late Friday afternoon.

• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.

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