Juneau Assembly sets school funding floor

Randy Wanamaker

Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker wants to cut local funding for the Juneau School District next year as the city seeks to deal with an estimated $12 million budget shortfall over the next two years. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly on Wednesday voted to provide no less than $24.1 million in local funding to schools next year. That’s the same amount the city gave the Juneau School District this year, but two assembly members argued for a lower amount.

In order to ensure school funding is relatively equal across the state, Alaska limits the amount of local money communities can put toward education. For years, the assembly has given the school district the maximum allowed under state law, known as funding to the cap.

We have a reputation of funding to the cap, of being fully supportive of education. I, for one, want to maintain that level,” said Assemblywoman Kate Troll at special meeting on the topic Wednesday evening.

While the cap is set to go up next year, the city won’t know the exact amount until the Alaska Legislature passes an education funding bill that’s still being debated as part of this year’s extended session.

In the meantime, the assembly is required to let the district know the minimum amount of local funding to be provided. Until the cap is set, City Manager Kim Kiefer and Finance Director Bob Bartholomew recommended setting next year’s minimum at this year’s cap of $24.1 million. Bartholomew said the assembly could adjust the amount later depending on the new cap.

“We’re proposing something that’s slightly below the cap and recommending that that be the floor for funding for this year,” Bartholomew explained “And then you can change it upwards from there if you want, or if the state comes in and there’s a change in how much is required, we have flexibility to adjust to that.”

The city also routinely gives the district money for things like activities and transportation, which are considered to be outside the cap. The administration’s proposed budget would cut that funding by $200,000 next year, a 5 percent reduction.

In light of an estimated $12 million budget shortfall over the next two years, Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker said the district should have to give up more.

This school district has enjoyed the benefit of many, many years of outstanding support from the assembly, because the assembly believed that it could do that at those times,” Wanamaker said. “And I was one of those that helped support it. But I believe it’s time for them to join in the cost reductions that we have to go through.”

Jesse Kiehl

Juneau Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl says cutting local money provided to the Juneau School District would exacerbate already deep cuts the district has made due to stagnant state funding. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Wanamaker proposed setting the minimum funding amount for the district under the cap at $23 million.

Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis said he’d take it down to $12 million, the minimum required under state law. Though he admitted he would never actually vote for that small an amount of school funding.

“But we’re painting ourselves into a corner because we’re obligated to paint ourselves into a corner,” Nankervis said.

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl pointed out that the school district has been cutting its budget for three or four years as the state’s education funding formula has remained flat.

“And it’s coming out of our kids. It’s coming out of our classrooms,” Kiehl said.

Wanamaker and Nankervis were the only assembly members to vote against the administration’s recommended minimum school contribution.

School Board President Sally Saddler, who attended the meeting, said afterward that the district has cut nearly 100 employees in the last four years. But she said the city also has had to cut.

“So, I don’t want to get into who feels the pain the most, because I think we all feel it together as a community,” Saddler said.

The assembly continues to work on the city’s two-year budget. A public hearing on the proposed city operating budget and the Juneau School District budget will be held next Monday.

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