Legislature considers forward funding schools
A delayed state budget process could result in temporary layoffs, or “pink slips,” for Alaska's teachers. It’s what happens when the Legislature is behind in its budgeting and school districts can’t guarantee teachers spots on the payroll for the fall.
A bill the House of Representatives passed this week, House Bill 169, would preempt those layoffs, funding public education sooner than the rest of the budget.
It wouldn’t have much effect for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, since it’s using federal COVID relief funds to avoid teacher layoffs the next two years.
But the bill also passed with an amendment to fund the following year’s public education budget, through 2023. That would be a big deal for the district, said teachers’ association president David Brighton.
“Forward funding is critical to know what to expect in future years," he said.
He said the budget process happens kind of backwards. The school district starts to budget in the fall and winter. It then goes to the borough for funding.
But the parameters of the borough's education funding — how little and how much it can provide — are based on the level of state funding. And the state may not have a final budget until May or June.
For school administrators, that might mean coming up with multiple budget scenarios.
“Even though everything at the other two levels is based on what the state is providing," Brighton said. "So it’s really pretty backward.”
The amendment to forward fund Alaska schools was controversial in the House.
At a floor session Wednesday, Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen said she thinks it’s important for the Legislature to provide schools stability after the year they’ve had.
“Most importantly for the students, but also to retain the talented teachers that we have here in the state of Alaska," she said. "And unfortunately, the operating budget has become a process that has become quite drawn out.”
Niksiki Rep. Ben Carpenter was one of the Republican legislators who spoke against the amendment. Carpenter, who’s on the House Finance Committee, said he was frustrated with the lack of discussion about the potential effects of forward funding.
“How are we to make good decisions if we piecemeal our component funding out of our budget? I’m not making an argument that early funding or forward funding education is not in the best interests of the school districts or of the teachers or the students or any other emotional plea that we can put forward as to how this is necessary," Carpenter said. "What I’m speaking to is how we do business on this floor.”
Enrollment numbers have loomed large in the district’s budget process. A drop in enrollment related to the pandemic originally threatened KPBSD’s funding for fiscal year 2022. The district planned to cut dozens of staff as parents opted for homeschool or left the district altogether.
But the district is using its latest allotment of federal COVID-19 funds partly to avoid layoffs this year and next. While it’s a short-term solution, it pushes off the impending pink slip problem.
In a normal year, the threat of a late-term budget would be significant, Brighton said. Even without pink slips, not being able to offer teachers contracts until late spring can be risky.
"What ends up happening a lot of times is teachers will apply for jobs somewhere else," he said.
Budget work is in part taking longer this year because legislators are trying to figure out how federal aid fits into budget matters.
Fairbanks Democrat Rep. Adam Wool advocated for the amended bill.
“It’s basically taking a process and multiplying it times two so we don’t have to go through this again," he said. "We’re late this year in delivering a budget. You could say a million reasons why. Maybe we organized a month later than we should have. But we’re late on budgets many times. For various different reasons.”
State budget talks have been tense amid the state’s budget deficit. Carpenter said he worries how funding could affect the state’s financial future.
"I know that it is very challenging for this body, individuals in the system we operate in, to have a bigger-picture focus," he said. "I have to draw our attention to the, like the previous speakers have talked about, which is our budget deficit.”
The Legislature has the power to change the base student allocation up until a budget passes. Brighton said even that forward funding could change going forward.
"It’s just a lot harder to do that once they’ve earmarked the money for education," he said.
The bill as amended passed the House, with 26 “yes” votes to 14 “no” votes. Carpenter, Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance and Soldotna Republican Rep. Ron Gillham were among the “no’s.” The bill now heads to the Senate.