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State legislators and school board define lawmaking priorities

The Alaska Statehouse in April, 2022.
Riley Board
The Alaska Statehouse in April, 2022.

State legislators joined the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education this week to hear the district’s priorities and discuss legislative plans.

The school board recently defined familiar legislative priorities for 2024: supporting student success through programs and standards, getting predictable funding from the state, and ensuring a safe and supportive school environment.

Monday afternoon, the board invited legislators to discuss those priorities. Senator Jesse Bjorkman and Representatives Ben Carpenter and Justin Ruffridge, all Republicans, attended the session. Republican Senator Gary Stevens, whose district includes the southern peninsula, sent staff member Tim Lamkin on his behalf.

Republican Rep. Sarah Vance, who represents the southern peninsula, did not attend, nor did Rep. Louise Stutes, whose district includes Seward.

Last year, Kenai school board members, administrators and educators were outspoken advocates for an increase to the per-student funding from the state, called the Base Student Allocation or BSA. This year, facing another $13 million deficit, the school board has already revived those conversations.

Board President Zen Kelly started off by posing the same questions to all of the legislators.

“What is your focus for this legislative session?” he asked. “And also, how are you able to address our legislative priorities that were provided, and how can we support you in those efforts?”

Carpenter responded by saying he felt the district had too many listed priorities. And he said while he was willing to look into increasing school funding through an increase in the BSA, he didn’t commit to supporting one.

“I won’t support a BSA increase unless we have some conversations about increasing accountability and getting some better results from our school system,” Carpenter said.

Bjorkman, a teacher himself, said he’ll focus on supporting the school district through the roll-out of the Alaska Reads Act. He said individual student welfare has the biggest impact on student success.

“The biggest driver of educational outcomes for each student is the home they live in and their economic reality,” he said. “So how we face that as a state is a big question.”

Bjorkman said the district would see improved outcomes from increased state funding, and encouraged the district to continue to speak out about its needs.

Ruffridge said he has several pieces of legislation in progress related to education, including an extension of the education tax credit program and an increase in homeschool student funding. In the legislature, Ruffridge is the co-chair of the House Education Committee, and he has spent the last few months visiting schools.

“I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the professionalism and diligence of our teachers and our principals in this district,” he said. “But I do see some signs of stress and a weakening of peoples’ ability to provide the education they want to provide.”

He said once schools return to better baseline funding, he’d like to revisit broad questions in the Alaska education system, like curriculum and educator autonomy.

During questions from school board members, legislators discussed the idea of accountability from schools. Carpenter said he wants easier paths for charter schools, and increased parental involvement in education. Ruffridge questioned the way that standardized testing has been used to assess and critique educational outcomes.

Bjorkman and Ruffridge have both filed to run for their seats again in 2024. Carpenter filed for Senate Seat D, the one currently held by Bjorkman. The legislative session begins January 16.

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