The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Peninsula voices join state debate over school funding

Lawmakers heard pleas from education leaders around Alaska to increase the state’s base student allocation

Kenai Peninsula residents were among the Alaskans to make their voices heard during Monday’s meeting of the Alaska Senate Education Committee, which heard public testimony on public education funding in Alaska.

Monday’s committee meeting came days after Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Clayton Holland urged for bumps to state funding for school districts during a presentation to the same committee, which includes Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, who is a former teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School.

Over the course of about an hour and a half, lawmakers heard pleas from education leaders around Alaska to increase the state’s base student allocation, which is the amount of money districts receive per student. The Legislature approved last year a $30 increase to the BSA, which has gone unchanged since fiscal year 2017, bringing the new amount to $5,690.

While school districts welcomed the bump, some, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, felt it didn’t go far enough. In the time since, school staff and other leaders have made clear they want to see the amount caught up to inflation, and for the Legislature to inflation-proof the amount moving forward. A Senate bill increasing the base student allocation has yet to be introduced.

State conversations about a need for more education funding come as KPBSD is forecasting a $13.1 million budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. The district plans to offset that amount with a combination of leftover COVID-19 relief funds, budget cuts and unassigned fund balance.

The school district has previously stated that it plans to request the maximum amount of funding from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and to seek a bump to education funding from the Alaska Legislature. KPBSD must present a balanced budget to the borough in April. The amount needed to balance the budget, Holland has said, is equal to more than 40 district staff positions.

Holland told committee members last week that it’s “unhealthy” for school districts to try and figure out how many staff they’ll be able to retain or let go of each year.

“It’s so unhealthy for a district or community to go through that on a regular basis,” Holland told committee members. “To be frank, that ESSER funding allowed us for a couple of years here not to have to do that same level. But we’re right back to it.”

In all, the school district has received three rounds of federal COVID-19 relief funding, which comes from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, fund.

KPBSD received about $2.3 million in original ESSER funds under the federal CARES Act, just over $9 million in ESSER II funds through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and about $20.4 million in ESSER III funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. Twenty percent of ESSER III funding, or about $4 million, must be set aside for learning loss recovery.

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth on Monday told committee members that staffing shortages have forced peninsula educators to “choose their mental health over the job that they once loved.” Erfurth told committee members that while there are lots of demands for state money, Alaska has an ethical and constitutional responsibility to educate students.

“We’re not at risk of failing to meet our potential without a BSA increase,” Erfurth said. “We’re already there. We maintain the illusion that everything is going fine for the benefit of our students. But unfortunately, the facade is crumbling. Demands on the school system have increased every year. Fixed costs have increased and the BSA has not kept up.”

Rachel Lord, a parent of two students in Homer, told committee members that a flat base student allocation is in effect a budget cut, and she wants to see a “significant increase” in addition to inflation-proofing.

“The arguments surrounding return on investment for our education system are … unfair and unreasonable given the actual lack of investment and the reduction in resources that Alaska has given to our public K-12 system for many years,” Lord, who also serves on the Homer City Council, told committee members.

Mica Van Buskirk, who said she is a parent of two high school students in Seward, told committee members that uncertainty about school positions have cost Seward educators who are seeking more stability. In addition to an increase to the base student allocation, Van Buskirk asked for the Legislature to consider forward-funding education as a way to provide that stability earlier in the year.

“​​I’m asking this year that the BSA is increased — not one-time funding — so that it’s something that we can count on,” Van Buskirk said.

The Alaska Senate Education Committee will on Wednesday be presented cost estimates for an increase to the base student allocation by Legislative Fiscal Analyst Alexei Painter.

Painter wrote in a Jan. 30 memo to Committee Chair Tobin that Alaska’s foundation formula, which determines the base student allocation, is the largest source of school district funding in the state. Because the Legislature has also frequently approved one-time funding outside of that formula, year-over-year BSA comparisons are “somewhat incomplete,” Painter wrote.

Because the rate of inflation changes, Painter wrote that inflation-proofing the base student allocation would require different amounts. Whichever year is used as a base, therefore, would largely affect how much the formula needs to be adjusted, Painter wrote. To match the buying power of FY17’s allocation, when buying power peaked, the BSA would need to increase by $1,195 in FY24.

Using the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s Fiscal Year 2024 Foundation Report Projections, Painter wrote that each $100 increase to the base student allocation would increase state funding by $25.7 million. An $860 increase to the BSA, a stated priority of the Alaska Association of School Boards, would increase state funding by $221 million.

Committee members also heard from residents and school leaders from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, the Dillingham City School District, the Lower Yukon School District, the Juneau School District and other school groups from around Alaska.

Senate committee meetings can be streamed on the Alaska Legislature website at akleg.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Mica Van Buskirk’s name and stated the incorrect year the BSA was last increased.

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