Southeast lawmakers wary of education budget cuts

Rep. Sam Kito III
Rep. Sam Kito lll addresses the Alaska House of Representatives in 2014. He and other Southeast lawmakers oppose cutting school funding. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Southeast Alaska lawmakers express skepticism that the Legislature should look to school funding to cut the state’s budget. In fact, some legislators would like to see spending increase in some education areas.

School funding makes up one of the largest pieces of the state budget. But as the Legislature looks to close a nearly $3 billion gap between state spending and revenue, Southeast lawmakers say school funding shouldn’t be cut further.

Rep. Sam Kito III said the foundation formula funding that makes up the bulk of state school spending should be taken off of the table for cuts. The Juneau Democrat is one of the legislators who said if anything, he’d like to increase funding.

“I do think that right now, we are not providing an adequate education in some areas of the state,” Kito said.

Kito said schools serving communities with large Alaska Native populations, as well as those with high poverty levels, have the highest need for funds.

“That could actually end up requiring additional funding for education. That’s why we do need to look at the services we’re providing, and then figure out how we’re going to pay for those services,” Kito said.

Kito also said the Legislature should weigh how to support the costs of building and maintaining schools. The state program to reimburse school districts for construction bonds was suspended in 2015 for five years.

“There are definitely areas where the program could have been fixed to save the state some money, but without it being there, the state is actually increasing our deferred maintenance of schools, which means school-repair costs in the future are going to be higher,” Kito said.

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan addresses a crowd during grand opening of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff Library, Archives and Museum Building on June 6, 2016. Also pictured are Juneau Rep. Cathy Munoz, Juneau Rep. Sam Kito III, and Senate Finance Committee co-chair Anna MacKinnon.
Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan addresses a crowd during grand opening of the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff Library, Archives and Museum on June 6, 2016. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan, a Democrat, said he wants to avoid a repeat of last summer when Gov. Bill Walker vetoed school debt reimbursement.

“It was a big blow to Juneau,” Egan said. “And we had to come up with … local funding. I mean, somebody’s got to pay. And it was done after municipalities had passed their budget.”

Juneau Rep. Justin Parish is Southeast’s newest lawmaker. A para-educator, the Democrat is a member of the House Education Committee. He joined Kito and Egan in opposing school funding cuts.

“I recognize that education is the largest component of our budget,” Parish said. “However, it is arguably the most vital for the long-term viability of our state.”

In higher education, the Southeast legislators want to give the University of Alaska more time to put into place its reorganization plan, aimed in part at cutting costs.

Rep. Justin Parish (Photo courtesy Justin Parish for House http://www.justinforjuneau.com/)

Parish said he’s eager to see how the plan affects students.

“I think that while an organization is trying to make cuts intelligently, it’s a little unwise to impose cuts from outside,” he said.

Kito said he’d like to see the university review whether it needs all of its buildings. And he’d like to see it refocus on meeting student needs.

“How can our university system generate graduates that can enter into the workforce in Alaska and be productive members of our state?” Kito said. “And that’s perspective I think they need to be taking.”

And the lawmakers said the state should look to close the roughly $6 billion gap between its pension obligations to retired teachers and other public workers and the assets it has to pay pensions.

Instead of cuts, Egan offered an alternative to the current retirement system. Instead of limiting public workers to the current defined contribution retirement system, Egan would like to offer them the chance to choose between traditional defined benefit pensions and the current system.

“Defined benefits allows people in the system to gain a better retirement if you want to stay here in Juneau, raise a family, pay property taxes, and contribute to the economy of the state,” Egan said.

Egan said defined contribution plans work better for workers who only plan to spend a few years in the state.

Ed Schoenfeld in Douglas and Quinton Chandler in Juneau contributed to this report.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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