Southeast Alaska lawmakers express skepticism that the Legislature should look to school funding to cut the state’s budget. In fact, some legislators would like to see spending increase in some education areas.
School funding makes up one of the largest pieces of the state budget. But as the Legislature looks to close a more than $3 billion gap between state spending and revenue, Southeast lawmakers say school funding shouldn’t be cut further.
Representative Sam Kito III said the foundation formula funding that makes up the bulk of state school spending should be taken off of the table for cuts. The Juneau Democrat said if anything, he’d like to increase funding.
“I do think that right now, we are not providing an adequate education in some areas of the state,” Kito said.
Kito said schools serving communities with large Alaska Native populations, as well as those with high poverty levels, have the highest need for funds.
“That could actually end up requiring additional funding for education,” Kito said. “That’s why we do need to look at the services we’re providing, and then figure out how we’re going to pay for those services.”
Kito also said the Legislature should weigh how to support the costs of building and maintaining schools. The state program to reimburse school districts for construction bonds was suspended in 2015 for five years.
“There are definitely areas where the program could have been fixed to save the state some money, but without it being there, the state is actually increasing our deferred maintenance of schools, which means school-repair costs in the future are going to be higher,” Kito said.
Juneau Senator Dennis Egan, a Democrat, said he wants to avoid a repeat of this last summer, when Governor Bill Walker vetoed school debt reimbursement.
“It was a big blow to Juneau,” Egan said. “And we had to come up with, you know, local funding. I mean, somebody’s got to pay. And it was done after municipalities had passed their budget.”
Juneau Representative Justin Parish is Southeast’s newest lawmaker. A para-educator, the Democrat is a member of the House Education Committee. He joined Kito and Egan in opposing school funding cuts.
“I recognize that education is the largest component of our budget,” Parish said. “However, it is arguably the most vital for the long-term viability of our state.”
In higher education, the Southeast legislators want to give the University of Alaska more time to put into place its reorganization plan – aimed in part at cutting costs.
Parish said he’s eager to see how the plan affects students.
“I think that while an organization is trying to make cuts intelligently, it’s a little unwise to impose cuts from outside,” Parish said.
Kito said he’d like to see the university review whether it needs all of its buildings. And he’d like to see it refocus on meeting student needs.
“How can our university system generate graduates that can enter into the workforce in Alaska and be productive members of our state?” Kito said. “And that’s perspective I think they need to be taking.”
And the lawmakers say the state should look to close the roughly $6 billion gap between its pension obligations to retired teachers and other public workers and the assets it has to pay pensions.