The 2014 session of the Alaska Legislature was billed as the “education session,” yet we start 2015 with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facing increasingly difficult decisions as it begin its budget process.
For the 2015-16 school year, the school district is facing a budget deficit that could be anywhere from $3.9 million to $8.7 million. The district can’t say for certain what the actual deficit will be; it’s building a budget without knowing what its actual revenue will be, as usual.
Meanwhile in Juneau, Gov. Bill Walker has said he wants to insulate education to the greatest extent possible, but that nothing is off the table as the state deals with its projected budget shortfall. According to the Associated Press, the administration has proposed cutting $50 million in aid to schools between 2016 and 2017.
Walker, in his recent State of the Budget address, said his proposed budget leaves formula-based funding intact, but cuts the one-time funding added by the Legislature last year.
That “one-time” funding has been a big deal for the school district. Last year, it amounted to $1.741 million and administrators included it in their preliminary budget projects because the district had been receiving the funds for three years.
And therein lies the problem for the school district — not just here on the peninsula, but across the state. While state lawmakers have spent a lot of time talking about education, they have been reluctant to dig too deeply into how to deliver it in a state as vast and diverse as Alaska. As House Speaker Mike Chenault noted during a school board work session in December that the Legislature hasn’t been able to decide what it wants to do. So, instead of re-evaluating the education funding formula, the lawmakers taken the tack of providing one-time funding, intended to allow school districts to address things such as increases in energy costs while keeping the formula funding directed toward the classroom.
But because it happens frequently enough, school districts have come to rely on one-time funding from the Legislature — especially when it has been allocated two years in advance. Now they are scrambling to figure out how to cover the shortfall from funding that, apparently, was promised but not guaranteed.
We understand the state is facing some tough decisions. We understand that simply throwing money at schools doesn’t solve every problem. But taking money away doesn’t help, either.
What schools need to thrive is stable, consistent, sustainable funding. That’s what leads to stable, consistent, sustainable programs that develop well-rounded, highly capable students.
At some point — and we hope it’s sooner rather than later — the Legislature is going to have to better define how to maintain public schools, as is required by the state constitution. And then lawmakers are going to have to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to deliver, because the current situation, with districts facing uncertain funding every year, is failing our children.