Legislature’s decimation of school funding is shortsighted

  • Saturday, April 4, 2015 3:58pm
  • Opinion

School districts around the state continue to take it on the chin as the Legislature slashes its way through the operating budget.

The Senate passed its version of the operating budget Friday, which included a 4.1 percent reduction in the base student allocation — a $47.5 million cut to school funding.

On top of that, the Senate version of the budget strips forward-funding of education for 2017. That comes on top of Gov. Bill Walker’s proposal to cut $32 million in one-time funding for next year that was approved by the Legislature last year. And in a separate measure, the Legislature has been working overtime to keep from having to reimburse municipalities for new school improvement and construction bonds.

We understand that the state must make cuts somewhere, but cutting funding for an already piecemeal education budget seems remarkably shortsighted.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District already is facing a multi-million dollar deficit, and the latest round of cuts certainly exacerbates the situation. According to a Friday afternoon news release, the district is facing a revenue reduction of nearly $8 million — a loss of $6.5 million in state funding, and, because the local education contribution is tied to a formula based on the state contribution, a reduction of nearly $1.5 million in potential borough funding.

More than 80 percent of the school district budget is staff salary and benefits, which means the only way to make up the difference is by cutting staff — up to 100 positions, according to the district’s release.

Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Pete Kelly said the Senate “did what was in the best interests of the state of Alaska.”

It’s hard to see how gutting school districts is in any way in the interest of Alaskans.

Most school districts around the state already struggle with funding from year to year, and head to Juneau every session, hat in hand, to lobby for additional funds.

Lawmakers in the past have pledged to look at education funding, but so far that has proven an empty promise as the Legislature instead passes short-term fixes, rather than addressing a long-term, consistent funding plan essential for school districts to succeed. This series of Band-Aids has barely been adequate to stop the bleeding; if lawmakers are set on ripping those Band-Aids off, as they appear to be this session, they ought to at least have a first-aid kit on hand to limit the blood loss.

Because the Senate version of the operating budget differs from what the House passed, the measure will likely go to a conference committee. Funding for education is likely to be used as political leverage as the Legislature will need to approve drawing on state savings to fund government in the coming year. We hope that when that vote comes to the floor, lawmakers will acknowledge that adequate funding of education — in addition to being a constitutional obligation — is worth the investment.

Failure to do so simply mortgages our state’s future.

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