The Juneau School District is $3.2 million in the red. Teachers are discouraged as they continue working without a contract, several years with no cost of living wage increase, and a significant increase to their health insurance costs. Effectively a pay cut. They feel undervalued and exhausted because they are. How did we get here?
It seems to me we landed here because of a fundamental lack of leadership in the Capitol building that has put districts around the state — including Juneau’s — in this position. The Legislature has been flat funding education for years. Since 2014 there has been no increase to the base student allocation, which determines the dollar amount that ends up in each district’s bank account from the State. With the cost of doing business in every sector increasing over the past decade, how can school districts be expected to provide the same (or more accurately — more) work with less money? Schools are falling apart as budgets are stretched to the breaking point. Maintenance is deferred and deferred again. Principals are asked to lead more than one school, teachers are teaching subjects they weren’t trained to teach and have overcrowded classrooms without the necessary aides.
Listen — this isn’t a drill. Our children are absolutely getting lost in this shuffle. Letting the school board know you support teachers having a fair contract is important — but there is no secret locker full of cash they’re hiding. The Legislature and the governor need to hear your voices. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has been no friend to education — he vetoed the one funding increase lawmakers approved under his watch — and he was just sworn in for his second term.
If Alaskans want healthy school districts with teachers who feel valued and are fairly compensated for the hard and critical work they do, we need to hold the governor and the Legislature accountable to make that so. Don’t let ineffectual leadership pit our communities against each other. We must demand an increase in the foundation formula in this budget cycle.
The Anchorage School District — the biggest in the state — is currently determining which schools to close. These are hard conversations that rip communities apart. Juneau could be next — but it doesn’t have to be. When Alaskans come together we can do incredible things.
Don’t let a scarcity mentality destroy us. We have resources, we just need the political will to invest those resources in Alaskans. Money and people are flowing out of this state — let’s work together to keep some here and invest it in our future.
• Jorden Nigro is a lifelong Alaskan and has worked with youth and families in Juneau for over two decades.