Leaders warn of looming budget crisis as enrollment drops in neighborhood schools across Alaska

An empty hallway at a Kenai Peninsula Borough School (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

In addition to the coronavirus crisis, Alaska education officials say they’re preparing for a budget crisis.

Lisa Parady, the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, and other officials spoke to legislators during a legislative committee meeting Wednesday. Parady said school districts need financial stability now.

“The pandemic is an acute issue that at some point will pass, but failing to support schools during this time will have lasting impacts,” she said.

Most of the budget concern stems from a rapid shift in enrollment in schools across the state.

The number of students enrolled in neighborhood schools statewide decreased by 13%, and the number of students in homeschool programs nearly doubled, according to preliminary state data presented during the meeting.

Most districts receive the bulk of their funding for the next school year based on student enrollment numbers in the current year.

Districts are asking the legislature to take an emergency action such as using enrollment numbers from the 2019-2020 school year to determine state funding levels.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Republican from Palmer, questioned the severity of the districts’ problem, noting that districts have already received federal funds from the CARES Act.

Hughes said parents in her district are more concerned about the quality of education being offered and that districts should focus on improving student outcomes before asking the legislature to step in.

“I can tell you that parents, I think, are going to be livid if all of a sudden we’re putting a whole lot more money into the districts when they’re not seeing the results and they’re pretty disappointed.”

The state’s education department does not have a recommendation yet for solving the funding problem, said state education commissioner Michael Johnson. That’s because of compliance issues with federal programs, he said, and because not all districts will be impacted the same way.

A survey conducted by the Alaska Superintendents Association showed in-school enrollment changes in districts across the state range from a decrease of 56.3% to an increase of 9.8%. And homeschool enrollment changes range from a 24.3% increase to a 1,300% increase. Some districts will be able to offset decreased in-school enrollment with increased enrollment in homeschool programs connected to their districts, while others may not.

“On any solution you’re pulling on one string [and] that’s pulling on another,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have to be careful and analyze all the relevant data points to come up with recommendations.”

Johnson said the data presented needs to be certified by state officials. Analysis of the overall impact of enrollment changes is ongoing.