Ketchikan superintendent: Schools funding cut ‘cowardice’

A last-minute move made by the Alaska House-Senate Conference Committee on the state budget that could decrease Ketchikan School District funding by $237,000 has Ketchikan School District Superintendent Robert Boyle and Rep. Dan Ortiz outraged.

However, it’s not simply the funds that Boyle said bothers him — it was the process by which the cut would have been made. Boyle called the cut “an act of cowardice.”

“The proposal’s completely out of left field, and it does not follow the processes for public input (or) review for people to adjust to Legislative actions,” Boyle said on Wednesday. “It comes at a time frame when school districts have already determined their budgets; they’ve hired personnel and have their plans in place for the future. It comes at a time frame that is past the expected closing date of the Legislative session and in a late-hour process that is damaging to the reputation of the legislative process. It makes them look very bad in terms of offering quality leadership.”

The cut isn’t official yet — it would have to be approved by both the House and the Senate in the statewide budget.

The Legislature has been in session for a month past the original 90-day session deadline in the face of the oil revenue crisis, and both the House and Senate failed to pass an operating budget at the end of the session on Wednesday. There is a special session set to begin on Monday, with the budget, oil tax credit reform and new revenue measures on the agenda, according to a proclamation by Gov. Bill Walker.

Ortiz said throughout the fiscal year 2017 budget cycle, both the House and the Senate have included in their budgets a $50 increase to the base student allocation, or BSA — the amount of funding the state gives to school districts based on their individual student counts, or average daily membership.

The BSA was $5,880 in fiscal year 2016, which amounted to $22.92 million for the Ketchikan School District, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

However, the committee cut education funding by $12.9 million, or the equivalent of the $50 per student increase, at a Tuesday meeting, according to information from the Alaska Council of School Administrators and the Alaska Independent Democratic Coalition.

Rep. Mark Neuman, a Republican from Wasilla and the member of the conference committee that proposed the cut on Tuesday, did not return calls from the Ketchikan Daily News before Thursday’s deadline.

Ortiz said he didn’t think the process by which the committee made the cut was appropriate.

“It just happened in conference, which surprised everybody,” Ortiz said on Wednesday. “Theoretically, a conference committee (meets) to conference the difference between house numbers and senate numbers, and to come up with a decision on those differences and how to (reconcile) those differences, but in this particular case, there was no difference, so that’s why it totally surprised everybody.”

Ortiz said since the House and the Senate both included the $50 increase throughout the budgeting season, the committee “went out of the bounds of the regular conference committee” in making the cut by not allowing for public comment or response.

“They gave no one in the state, no one in the Legislature — other than those folks on the conference committee — an opportunity to comment (or) respond in anyway, because it was the midnight hour,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said he wouldn’t be surprised if the cut to the BSA will come up in the upcoming session.

“I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this issue,” he said.

Though the cut would amount to $12.9 million statewide, Boyle said the local cut wouldn’t break the Ketchikan School District’s bank, especially after the Ketchikan Gateway Borough voted on Monday to fully fund the school district budget.

“I will not project that this has a quote-unquote devastating impact on the district,” Boyle said. “$230,000 is one-half of one percent (of the school district’s total budget of $40 million), but it does impact us in a negative way. What we have to be upset about is the process. It does not allow legitimate representation for the public.”

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