‘Devastating’ and ‘significant’: Educators react to Dunleavy’s budget proposal

UAF neurobiology and anatomy.Professor Abel Bult-Ito speaks at a rally in front of the Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 13, 2019. About 80 people participated in the rally organized by the University of Alaska to advocate for support of state funding. It was held on the same day Gov. Michael Dunleavy released the latest version of his proposed state budget.

University of Alaska Fairbanks neurobiology and anatomy professor Abel Bult-Ito speaks at a rally in front of the Capitol in Juneau on Feb. 13, 2019. About 80 people participated in the rally organized by the University of Alaska to advocate for support of state funding. It was held on the same day Gov. Michael Dunleavy released the latest version of his proposed state budget. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

One of the areas most affected by Gov. Michael Dunleavy’s budget proposal is education. About 23 percent of K-12 funding would be cut. The governor also proposed a 44-percent cut to the University of Alaska system.

During his unveiling of the budget proposal, Dunleavy said education is one of the largest cost-drivers in the state, and that efficiencies needed to be made.

“It’s going to compel school districts to evaluate how they spend their money,” Dunleavy said. “As you know, spending is a local control issue. It’s not controlled by the state. The funding is.”

In a press conference held shortly after the budget was released, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen stated that in the past few years, the university has already made significant cuts to adjust to smaller budgets.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen delivers the State of the University Address at a Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Juneau on Feb. 16, 2017.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen delivers the State of the University address at a Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Juneau on Feb. 16, 2017. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

“We’ve laid off over 1,200 faculty and staff. We’ve cut over 50 academic and degree certificate programs. We have been forced to raise tuition, and we have watched our enrollment decline,” Johnsen said.

He called the cuts proposed by the governor “devastating.” He said the university has never had to deal with cuts of this magnitude. One of the programs that the budget proposal would cut is the WWAMI medical school program.

Johnsen said if the budget proposal goes through, he’s confident that other programs would also have to be cut and campuses would need to shut down.

“I respect the governor’s boldness and his vision for a sustainable and growing Alaska,” Johnsen said. “This budget, however, at least how it impacts Alaska’s university system, guts one of our state’s most powerful tools for realizing that vision.”

In Anchorage, University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said in a tweet on Wednesday she would meet with students on Friday to discuss the cuts, and then she’s going to Fairbanks to meet with the other two chancellors in the UA system about how to move forward.

Public schools across the state would see a total loss of about $300 million under the governor’s proposed budget. Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said that in the state’s largest school district, about one-in-six Anchorage residents will be affected by these cuts.

“Forty-eight thousand students, 6,000 employees, and that’s not even including parents that come in and out of our doors,” Bishop said. “So we’re a significant piece of what we know as our society here in Anchorage.”

Under the proposal, the district would see a decrease of about $110 million. Bishop said that would take the district back to budget levels from more than a decade ago.

That doesn’t include inflation and rising costs.

“Over 10 years, the increase in salaries went up about 30 percent, but the increase in health insurance went up 160 percent,” Bishop said.

Bishop said in that time period, the district also introduced more STEM programs as well as career technical classes. She said these classes, while beneficial to students going into Alaska’s workforce, are also more expensive, serve smaller class sizes and likely would be the first programs to be cut.

Bishop added that while the cuts would be felt hard in Anchorage, rural districts would have an even rougher time getting quality educators to teach there.

“Even with resources, it’s been hard to attract people to our entire state given the setup of different systems, whether it’s retirement, distance, things like that,” Bishop said. “It’s different in rural Alaska.”

During his campaign and as governor, Dunleavy prioritized public safety and job creation. Bishop argues having a strong education system is vital to those goals, and education cuts run opposite to the governor’s priorities.

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