Alaska school officials say one-time funding boost leaves budgets unpredictable

Juniper and Nyah Harris hold signs outside the Alaska State Capitol at a rally calling for more education funding. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

The budget the Alaska Legislature passed last week includes a one-time school funding boost of $175 million. 

School district leaders and many legislators were hopeful that the base student allocation – part of a formula that determines how much money schools get from the state – would increase significantly this year. And they say the one-time funding passed instead won’t resolve ongoing budget problems.

“Until we make structural reform to school funding, we’ll always be in these conversations where we’re talking about deficits and budget cuts and pink slips and layoffs,” said Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt.

Districts plan for deficits

The Anchorage School District expects to get nearly $50 million from the one-time boost, if Gov. Dunleavy approves it. But Chief Financial Officer Andy Ratliff said the lack of a permanent funding increase makes it hard to plan for 2025.

“It incentivizes you to just save it and not spend it, knowing you’re going to have a bigger deficit the following year,” Ratliff said.

Juneau School District officials are also anticipating budgeting challenges for 2025. Cassee Olin, director of administrative services, said the district expects to get $5.4 million of the $175 million boost.

“Basically, we’ll start building our budget in FY25 already in a deficit of $5.4 million,” Olin said.

That means the district likely won’t put the money to new, recurring costs — like hiring teachers. Instead, she said, they might spend it on online classroom materials or maintenance projects.

“We’d like to try to focus on non-personnel expenses with the additional funding – something that we don’t necessarily have to have in the following years,” she said.

Without a permanent funding increase, districts may have to resolve deficits in other ways, like closing schools, making class sizes bigger and reducing bus service.

A safety valve until next year

Several legislators spent this year’s session pushing for a permanent increase in school funding. 

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, chaired this session’s Senate Education Committee. She advocated for the Senate version of a bill to increase the base student allocation by $680.

“There seemed like, up until the end, a pathway forward,” she said. “I think we – in Senate Education and again Senate Finance – were able to really articulate why an increase under the BSA was the best, most equitable and fair way to support our education system.”

Instead, the base student allocation will only go up by $30 – an increase Dunleavy approved last year – bringing the base number to $5,960. The exact number a district gets per student can change based on factors like school size and whether a student has intensive needs.

Tobin said that without a significant increase to the base student allocation, a one-time funding boost was the next best option. She called it a “safety valve” to hold schools over until the Legislature can resume talks about the base student allocation next year. 

Tobin said she’s feeling optimistic that Dunleavy will approve the one-time boost.

“I know that he is an advocate for our schools. I know that he recognizes the value of a good quality public education,” Tobin said. “I’m hopeful that he sees this balanced budget and uses his veto pen very little.”

School boards and district administrators around the state will meet in the coming weeks to discuss next steps. Dunleavy has 20 days to review the Legislature’s budget once he receives it.

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