Legislature approves flat schools budget, but no increases may force cuts

The Alaska Legislature on Wednesday approved a $1.2 billion budget for public schools in the next fiscal year.

With a 31-9 vote, the Alaska House approved changes made to House Bill 287 by the Senate on Saturday. The measure now goes to Gov. Bill Walker for his signature.

The measure includes no increases or decreases over the current fiscal year. When the new fiscal year starts July 1, public schools will receive the same amount of money they are getting this year. Public school administrators have repeatedly warned the Legislature that this means job and program cuts, as inflation — particularly rising health care costs — takes hold.

Mark Miller, superintendent of the Juneau School District, called passage of the bill a “good first step,” but warned that without funding increases, “this is going to get really ugly, really quickly.”

A clause in HB 287 allows for a bigger schools budget in 2020, but only if lawmakers reach an agreement on Senate Bill 26, a measure attempting to limit the Legislature’s ability to spend from the Alaska Permanent Fund. With the state facing a $2.4 billion annual deficit, some in the House and Senate want to ensure that future school budgets don’t come at the expense of the Permanent Fund, which is seen as a potential partial fix to the deficit.

In the House on Wednesday, lawmakers were reminded: A vote for schools today doesn’t mean they will (or must) vote for SB 26. That clause applies only to the 2020 budget, not the 2019 one.

“A vote on this bill is just a vote on this bill and does not obligate anyone to vote on Senate Bill 26,” said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, was among the lawmakers voting for the bill.

“I do think that providing education funding is important, and the conditional language is something that is going to have to be worked out, but I do think that the funding for education is important to get done now,” he said.

“I was really happy to vote for it today, because it means there is a baseline of funding that’s guaranteed now,” said Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau.

Ordinarily, the budget for Alaska’s public schools is funded alongside other state departments in one big omnibus funding bill. For the past several years, lawmakers have struggled to pass that omnibus bill before May. Last year’s budget didn’t pass until late June.

Most of the state’s school districts, meanwhile, are required to turn in their budget proposals to their parent cities and boroughs much earlier. Without surety about how much money they will get from the state, districts are forced to guess low and revise later. Because that “later” has become “much later” in the past few years, districts have begun laying off teachers, then rehiring them when the Legislature passes a budget.

To avoid that problem, lawmakers created HB 287 and attempted to move it through the budget process quickly. It didn’t work out that way: Errors on the House side left the bill without any funding power when lawmakers approved it in February, then the Senate delayed making changes to the proposal until the rest of the budget was drafted.

That means a bill intended to offer “early funding” instead passed the Legislature three days after the target that lawmakers had set for adjournment.

“I think in doing this, they’ve pushed that envelope about the pink slips, and I think that’s important. We didn’t do that. Our vote very clearly said we don’t want pink slips,” said Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla.

Opposition to the bill on Wednesday came from lawmakers concerned about the provision regarding SB 26.

“You shouldn’t tie legislation that has absolutely nothing to do with another piece of legislation,” said Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole.

Parish said he sees passage of the bill as an opportunity to push for an increase to the state’s per-student funding, an idea that has passed the House and thus far been rejected by the Senate. A hearing on the idea is scheduled for 8 a.m. Thursday.

“I couldn’t be happier to say that now, all of our educational advocates can focus their efforts on getting a BSA increase with the confidence that we’ve got at least flat funding. We can work for the rest,” he said.

As for SB 26, Parish said his vote today doesn’t mean he supports that bill.

Does today’s vote make it more likely that SB 26 will pass the House?

“It’s too early to say,” Parish said.

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

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