Hearings, rallies on education to be held this week

Thunder Mountain High School Commons. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Invest in education is the rally cry of the week in the state capitol, as the Senate completes its work on the state operating and mental health budgets.

Sue Hall of Fairbanks puts it this way:

“Alaska’s future really is in our classrooms right now.”

Hall testified Saturday before a partial Senate Finance Committee. Representing the Association of Alaska School Boards, she reminded lawmakers of their constitutional mandate to fund school operations.

“Education is an essential; it’s your only constitutionally mandated responsibility. Smart states don’t treat education as just another line item,” Hall said.

While money is in the education budget for the governor’s performance scholarship program, energy, technology and other add-ons, the Base Student Allocation, or BSA, has remained the same for the last three years, despite inflation.

Much of the testimony at Saturday’s hearing emphasized the cuts districts across the state have had to make because school operating dollars remain flat.

In Juneau, for example, the Board of Education is planning to cut about $1.7 million next year, including 14 positions.

“This is on top of the$4.7  million reductions last year.  The JSD has lost 104 positions and many services in the last three years.  Children and parents need your support for a stable budget plan that maintains buying power for schools when fixed costs go up,” said Andi Story, the board’s clerk.

The state’s largest school district, Anchorage, is expecting a $25 million gap between costs and state revenue, which is the largest portion of all school district budgets.

Senate Finance co-chairman Pete Kelly expects the committee will start on budget amendments Monday.  He said the operating budget bill is scheduled to come before the full Senate on Wednesday.

Meanwhile,  House and Senate minority Democrats say parents’ and educators’ concerns about funding are not being heard by their majority Republican counterparts.

The minority is hosting a statewide hearing Monday afternoon, called Save Our Schools.

Anchorage Rep.  Harriet Drummond served three terms on the Anchorage School Board and said she identifies with the public’s frustration.

“We’ve been getting hundreds of emails and contacts in our legislative offices from people who are very disturbed by the direction this legislature is going on all these issues – on pre-school cuts, on vouchers, and the classroom operating funds.  I’ve had visits from school board members, from superintendents, from principals, students,” Drummond said.

The hearing is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.  Monday in room 203 of the state capitol building and by teleconference.

On Tuesday, a rally called Stand Up for Our Students will start at 4:15 p.m. outside the state capitol.

Former state Labor Commissioner and Juneau School Board member Ed Flanagan is already planning his speech.  He blames flat funding on Gov. Sean Parnell.

“Folks are just backing off because the governor has said you’re not going to get anymore – an increase in the BSA.  I think it’s still incumbent upon everybody that cares about our kids’ education to speak up and be heard with the legislature that we can’t fall back into the rut we were in in the nineties of flat funding.  And having our kids fall behind,” Flanagan said. “It’s great to have a scholarship program but it you’re not funding  secondary (schools) sufficient for kids to qualify for that scholarship, what’s the point.”

Organizers of Stand Up for Our Students hope school districts throughout the state hold similar events this week as the legislature begins closing out the education budget.