Possible school closures in Anchorage point to funding issues statewide
A perfect storm of rising inflation, stagnating state funding and widespread enrollment issues is hitting schools across Alaska.
Administrators at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District say those issues raise concerns about whether the district can fund certain teacher and staff positions going forward.
For some school districts, those issues create even more of an existential threat. The district in Anchorage, for example, just announced it might have to close a handful of elementary schools amid a $68 million budget gap.
Reporters James Brooks and Lisa Phu have been covering this issue from a statewide perspective for the Alaska Beacon. You can read their Oct. 21 story here.
We spoke with Brooks earlier this week about what administrators are doing in other parts of the state to cope with flat funding and rising bills — and how we got here in the first place.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
KDLL: In your story, you lay out this picture of how schools across the state are really struggling without the funding they need to keep a lot of basic operations going. And I know there's a couple different factors that went into getting us to that point.
How did we get here?
James Brooks: It's a long, slow decline, is how it shapes up, because most schools get their money — or, at least, the bulk of their money — through what’s called the “base student allocation.” They're paid each year per student. Students with special needs get more money for the district, but there is a base level that each district gets per student.
And that level is set in state law. So it's not easy to change. It requires a law to pass through the legislature to change.
And it's not changed very often. It hasn't changed significantly in almost a decade. And over time, that money gets eaten away by inflation. A dollar today isn't worth as much as it was back when the base student allocation was originally written.
KDLL: I know there was a small change in the base student allocation last session. But the sense I'm getting from your reporting is that districts aren't particularly satisfied with how much money that added per student.
JB: Exactly. This last session, there was a big reading bill. The Alaska Reads Act intended to help boost students’ reading scores up to third grade — the idea being that if students are reading well when they're in kindergarten and grade school, they're going to be much more likely to succeed. And so that bill included some funding.
But the change it made to the base student allocation was very small — only about one half of one percent, or $30 per student. And there were plenty of legislators who thought that wasn't enough. There was separate legislation calling for a $270 increase per student, and that didn't pass.
We have seen the legislature appropriate one-time money, from time to time. These are additional funding sources that are outside the base student allocation. And this year, there's some of that money in the budget. So it offsets some of the impact of not having the base student allocation increase year over year.
But it's not a permanent fix because, again, that money is one time, it's for one year, it goes away, and the long-term problem remains.
KDLL: When we talk about enrollment and the challenges of enrollment in school districts, is the link between enrollment and funding because of the base student allocation? When we have fewer students enrolling in these schools, the base student allocation funding for these districts is coming in much lower?
JB: Exactly. So if enrollment declines like we saw during the pandemic, then that rebounds on school districts. They suddenly have less money to deal with anything they might need to deal with — whether it's heating fuel to keep schools warm, or whether it’s bringing in food for student lunches. The base student allocation affects all of that.
KDLL: One other really interesting factor from your story was how funding from COVID relief funds — once that money runs out, that's a big source of funding that we no longer have. And I know in the district here, that's a concern in regards to how we’re able to fund some teacher and staff positions.
Did all districts across Alaska take in this CARES, this COVID funding, and are they dealing with this precipice of funding drop-off similarly across the state?
JB: You know, each district had its own way of spending COVID money. They could have used it to cover existing costs. In the Juneau school district, for example, they hired special staff, special reading experts, to help students deal with the negative effects of doing Zoom school instead of in-person school. And it really depended on where you were in the state, on local district decisions on how that money got spent.
But generally, that money either has run out, or is about to run out across the state. So regardless of how a district spent that, this money kind of acted as a stopgap measure and kept districts from feeling the real impact of the gradual erosion of the base student allocation.
KDLL: The most severe and visible impact of these shortfalls are some of the school closures that we're seeing in Anchorage, for example. But that isn't the only way schools are going to be grappling with these shortfalls.
Do we have any sense of how other districts might be dealing with these funding problems going forward?
JB: While school closures are the biggest and most obvious effect,what you see across the state are districts cutting back on things that are nice to have or things that are helpful for students, but not really required. Say, you need a reading aide, or an aide in the classroom to help a teacher cope with having 30 students in the class. Or an extra librarian to keep the school libraries open longer. Or you might see less funding for extracurricular activities.
Those are some of the ways that districts are cutting back. Even some things as small as setting the thermostat down a few degrees to save some money on heating fuel. Because districts all operate and make decisions at the local level, the differences are pretty widespread.
KDLL: I know when we talk about issues like inflation, we're usually talking about how communities in rural Alaska seem to grapple with those issues differently than communities on the road system and urban Alaska.
Similarly, are schools in the more rural parts of the state experiencing these impacts disproportionately?
JB: Yeah, it's worth thinking about what we mean when we talk about inflation. We see these big figures that are national and say, “Oh, prices went up by seven percent nationwide over a set period of time.”
But consider what schools buy. They buy food, they have to pay for staff salaries, they have to pay for staff health insurance, heating fuel. And those costs can actually go up faster than that big number that comes from a national source.
So, for example, I was listening to testimony from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. And their costs will actually rise faster than that big national inflation number, because Alaska's healthcare costs are so high, and they're the highest in the country and rising fast.
So the costs are actually rising faster than inflation, than that base rate of inflation. And you see a lot of the impacts more in rural areas, where the costs are already high. So if you have something that costs $100, a 10% increase is going to be $10. But if in an urban district it only costs $50, that 10% increase is only going to be $5.
So in places where costs are already high, that's where inflation bites hardest.
KDLL: Are any legislators or candidates kind of making moves to improve this situation? Do we think we're going to see any legislation in the next session that might address the base student allocation, for example?
JB: It remains an open question, and it kind of depends on who ends up in charge of the state house, the state senate and the governor's office. Because what I've heard covering the capitol in the last few years is a lot of support for increasing the base student allocation among Democratic legislators.
Among Republican legislators, I haven't heard as much of that. There's been more talk about wanting to see better performance from schools before throwing additional money at the issue — the idea being, these legislators say, that maybe more money isn't a cure all, a panacea, for the problems that are affecting school districts. That may be school districts’ need to be restructured in some way or that the way they're being run needs to be restructured first.