Voices of the Peninsula: The gravy train is over

My parents came to Alaska in 1948 to teach. They moved to Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in 1967 and taught there until their retirement. From 1967-2018 there was a member of our family teaching on the peninsula, with the exception of three years in the early 1980s. Our family touched the lives of thousands of kids over those years of teaching. Our commitment to teaching is not the exception, but is the rule. Everyday thousands of teachers do their best to inspire students to do their best.

Alaska’s “education governor,” if his budget goes forward, will make the job of teachers more difficult and make teacher recruitment in our state even more difficult than it already is. His justification for these cuts is that the outcomes of Alaska’s schools (eg. test scores) are poor, so why keep funding them at such a high level?

About 80% of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s budget is dedicated to salary and benefits of staff. I am sure the percentage is similar in other districts, although schools off the road system face higher costs in other areas (utilities, travel, etc.) that would affect this percentage. If a district is charged with cutting their budget by 25%, as proposed by Gov. Dunleavy, they will have to reduce staffing, cut salaries and benefits, or both. The result will be increased class sizes, more difficult working conditions and likely reduced salary and benefits. There is no way that this will improve the outcomes.

The cuts to our university system, which has already faced steep cuts, will make it extremely difficult to train teachers in state. Alaskans who return to their community to teach are more likely to be committed to stay long term. If a young person must travel out of state to earn a teaching degree there is a good chance they see better opportunities for teaching jobs out of state.

Cuts to early childhood education are perhaps the most shortsighted. Preparing preschool-aged children for school has always been important. By the time a child is 5 years old they should already have a base of language and social development that will enable them to be successful in school. With the decline of the family unit, fewer and fewer kids are showing up for their first day of school with these skills. If the governor is serious about getting children to read then he must ensure full funding for early childhood education.

Many people view athletic and music programs as fluff. The governor himself, when asked about cuts to these programs, said that schools should focus on core subjects rather than extracurricular activities. These programs give students an incentive to attend school and perform well in core subjects to maintain eligibility. They also offer lifelong skills and experiences that improve the likelihood of success in life. Commitment to a sport teaches work ethic, team commitment and health/wellness concepts that simply can’t be taught in the classroom. Music programs teach all of the above and develop the brain in such a way that math concepts are more easily learned. My daughter is a math whiz in part because of her exposure to music programs at Mt. View Elementary, Kenai Middle School and Kenai Central High School.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, in preparation for a worst-case scenario, is looking at closing six schools, eliminating sports/activities and raising class sizes. The governor seems to think large cuts to education can be made while improving outcomes. That is simply not true. To add insult on top of injury Gov. Dunleavy intends to take away petroleum-based property taxes from our borough, making education even more difficult to fund.

As Lisa Murkowski stated, “the PFD over everything mentality is a dangerous thing for the State of Alaska.” How many people will be surprised by the state we are left with if we balance the budget through cuts and provide full dividends with no revenue enhancements? Those of us who are paying attention will not be surprised. In the words of Clem Tillion, “the gravy train is over.” Oil revenue alone can no longer fund a budget that will ensure a vibrant Alaska.

— Charlie Stephens, Kenai

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