From left: Rep. Ben Carpenter, Sen. Jesse Bjorkman and Rep. Justin Ruffridge discuss their priorities regarding education during a work session with members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

From left: Rep. Ben Carpenter, Sen. Jesse Bjorkman and Rep. Justin Ruffridge discuss their priorities regarding education during a work session with members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

School funding, accountability dominate school board work session with lawmakers

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, Rep. Ben Carpenter and Rep. Justin Ruffridge joined the board for a work session in Soldotna

School funding and accountability were key themes during a Monday work session that brought together members of the local school board and three of the Kenai Peninsula’s state lawmakers.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, Rep. Ben Carpenter and Rep. Justin Ruffridge joined the board for a work session in Soldotna to discuss what the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will advocate for in Juneau during the Alaska Legislature’s next regular session. Tim Lankin attended the meeting on behalf of Sen. Gary Stevens. Rep. Sara Vance did not attend.

The document guiding Monday’s conversation was a list of KPBSD’s legislative priorities, which were honed by board members last month and formally approved Monday night. Those priorities include supporting the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act, providing predictable and proactive funding for schools and prioritizing career and technical education opportunities for students.

KPBSD joined school districts around the state last session in advocating for an increase to the amount of money the State of Alaska gives school districts per student, also called the base student allocation. Other than a $30 per-student increase approved last year, the amount has remained unchanged since fiscal year 2017.

The district faces, for the second year in a row, a $13 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, and has already said it will face tough cuts. Currently, an estimated 66 positions — 60 certified positions and six support positions — are funded with temporary federal COVID relief funds, which the district no longer has.

Though school funding was a top topic during the work session, the three lawmakers who attended also previewed education bills they plan to sponsor next session.

Ruffridge, who co-chairs the House Education Committee, summarized the legislation he plans to sponsor during the upcoming session, including a bill that aims to increase the number of Alaska students who take advantage of the Alaska Performance Scholarship and another that would increase the amount of money Alaska home-school students receive.

Bjorkman, a member of the Senate Education Committee and also a teacher at Nikiski Middle/High School, said he agrees with the need to give more resources to schools as a way to boost educational outcomes. He further said that additional resources are needed to support the implementation of the Alaska Reads Act, which he and KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland have called an “unfunded mandate.”

Carpenter highlighted a bill sponsored by the House Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs, that would allow parents to petition for new charter schools through the Alaska Board of Education, rather than having to petition through their local school board. He invoked the community of Nikolaevsk, where parents tried and failed to start a new local charter school earlier this year.

Carpenter had to leave Monday’s meeting after about 30 minutes, but told board members that he was “confused” while reading the district’s priority list.

“I’m not sure what the priority is,” he said. “There’s a lot listed here. Everything can’t be a priority.”

Further, he said he won’t support an increase to the amount of money the State of Alaska gives school districts without more accountability, in the form of better educational outcomes, from those districts. He further suggested that parent control of schools would result in a “change in the culture” in which parents have more ownership in those outcomes.

“You want me to consider increasing funding for a school system that, in some instances, is failing to educate our kids,” he said.

Ruffridge questioned whether standardized testing, which has been inconsistent in Alaska during recent years, is the best metric to use when determining whether or not schools are successful. Accountability, he said, is a “buzzword” that actually refers to whether the state is getting a return on the investment that it’s making in education.

“I’m not sure accountability and assessment actually exists in the state of Alaska now,” Ruffridge said. “Before we go down that road of who’s testing and why are they testing, I think we should probably make sure that the test is usable, and actually gives us data that we can use to adjust to how we’re performing.”

Board President Zen Kelly also called accountability a buzzword and said the district’s new legislative priorities identify increasing the number of students at or above grade level in reading and math as ways they plan to gauge student success. He encouraged people to ask for specifics when they encounter people asking for more school accountability.

“If I know how you are going to define accountability, I’m not going to try to guess what your version of accountability is,” he said. “We’re willing to be accountable.”

Board member Kelley Cizek, whose husband is also running against Bjorkman for the Senate District D seat, engaged in a back-and-forth with Bjorkman about how the services public schools are expected to provide have changed.

“On one hand, we want parents to be accountable (and) we want them to be involved, but then on the other hand … we are being asked to provide everything,” Cizek said, giving schools’ federal free and reduced lunch programming as an example.

Bjorkman said, using that example, that not every student has parents who make them lunch every day and that students have a difficult time learning when their basic needs aren’t met.

“What I’m concerned with here is that we’re providing an excellent education to every student every day,” Bjorkman said. “If a kid is hungry, they should get lunch. That doesn’t mean that the government has to provide it, but that kid should eat.”

Board members during their regular meeting on Monday formally adopted their list of legislative priorities, amending one to say that they support a sustainable retirement plan for educators, rather than a defined benefit retirement plan. Throughout the meeting, they heard testimony from multiple students, who spoke in support of extracurricular programming, previously threatened by budget cuts.

Aurora Borealis Charter School Principal Cody McCanna said he supports the legislative priorities and challenged the idea of “accountability” as evidenced by a test score.

“When they want to say we’re not accountable … I would say, how do you put the hopes and dreams of a kid and their life into a number?” McCanna said. “It’s more than a test score.”

The full work session will be available to view on the school district’s BoardDocs website.

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

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