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Education funding looms over early legislative discussions, Kenai Peninsula schools

A sign in the halls of the Alaska Statehouse, April 2023.
Riley Board
A sign in the halls of the Alaska Statehouse, April 2023.

The topic of education funding has dominated the second session of the 33rd Alaska Legislature so far. After convening on January 16, the legislature pushed but came up short of overriding the governor’s veto of an education funding boost from last year, and is now discussing possible per-student funding increases.

After the legislature passed a $175 million one-time education funding boost last year, Gov. Mike Dunleavy vetoed half of it. Shortly after returning to Juneau, the House and Senate gathered in a joint session, but fell short of an override.

All of the Central Peninsula’s legislators — Reps. Ben Carpenter and Justin Ruffridge, and Sen. Jesse Bjorkman — voted no. Bjorkman was one of only three Senate majority members to vote against.

In an emailed statement, he said the legislature had “missed the bus for funding this school year” and that he instead supports an increase to the per-student funding provided to districts, called the Base Student Allocation or BSA.

“It’s important that K-12 funding comes through the BSA and not one-time funding so that districts will know what funding to expect and can budget accordingly,” Bjorkman wrote.

Bills for a BSA increase stalled during the last session, but House Republicans unveiled a plan last week that includes a modest BSA bump, among other things.

In a hearing Saturday, the House Rules Committee heard public testimony about Senate Bill 140, which would increase the BSA by $300. Several Kenai Peninsula residents and district employees called in to speak on the bill, many saying the number was not enough.

LaDawn Druce, president of the Kenai Peninsula’s teacher union, was among them. She said her organization is advocating for a $1,413 BSA increase.

“We need to invest in a meaningful increase to the base student allocation to stave off a major exodus of teachers, families and our future workforce,” Druce said.

The increase would cost the state $77 million a year, but many argued it doesn’t even keep up with inflation. Homer parent Robanne Stading said she’s observed the impact of a stagnant BSA on her children.

“The last increase of any significance, my youngest child was in kindergarten. She’s now in 7th grade,” she said. “So yes, if you have an elementary kiddo in your life, a child, grandchild, great grandchild, neighbor, niece, they’ve been educated with the same funding their entire school career.”

Stading criticized what she said were extraneous components of the bill, including a provision that would allow charter schools to seek approval at the state level, and bypass their local school boards. That section has met criticism from house minority members, as has the generally wide scope of the bill, which also includes teacher bonuses intended to help recruitment and an increase in correspondence school funding.

Education Commissioner Deena Bishop is an advocate for the charter school provision, which she said will increase opportunities for students to attend charters. Bishop recently changed her position on a BSA increase, something she advocated for before becoming commissioner, and no longer says is necessary.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland expressed disappointment with Bishop’s change of opinion at a Board of Education meeting this month. KPBSD is facing about a $13 million deficit for the next fiscal year. Board members and administrators have been vocal about how important an increase in legislative funding will be to filling that gap.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly affirmed its support for a BSA increase in a unanimous resolution earlier this month. Other municipalities including Kenai and Homer have passed similar resolutions.

SB 140 faces an uphill battle as it approaches the house floor, where the Republican majority is slim and some members broke from the pack already on the override vote.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.