Legislators hope to fix uncertainty plaguing school budgets this session

Rep. Paul Seaton said he hopes the Legislature will pass House Bill 287 to avoid budget uncertainty for Alaska school districts. (KTOO photo)

This session, some state legislators hope to put an end to the uncertainty school districts across the state face when it comes to their budgets.

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House Bill 287 and Senate Bill 131 both address K-12 school funding, but in different ways.

HB 287 would split next school year’s education budget off from the state’s main budget. It calls for about $1.3 billion from state savings.

SB 131 isn’t itself a budget bill, but a process bill. It would require the Legislature to pass a separate public education budget by April 1 each year.

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens is sponsoring SB 131, and Homer Republican Rep. Paul Seaton is sponsoring HB 287. Seaton said they spoke with each other about their bills, but they didn’t plan them together.

“So he asked me whether that would interfere and I said, ‘No, that would be good because that’s looking at the long term,’” Seaton said. “In other words talking about future legislatures and what they will do, and this bill is looking at doing an appropriation to accomplish the goal this year while we have control of the budget.”

Wasilla Republican Rep. Cathy Tilton is critical of that approach. She said on Thursday that prioritizing education over everything else in the overall budget doesn’t seem fair.

“I think that education is a very important issue in our state, but I also think that crime has risen and public safety is also a very important issue in our state,” Tilton said. “So if you start to look at the different agencies, and we do go to the constitution, see what’s constitutionally mandated but public safety is also constitutionally mandated. So where do we decide who’s the winners, who’s the losers? Whose budget gets funded first?”

For several years when there was plenty of money in the general fund, the Legislature planned education funding several years in advance.

At the end of last school year, hundreds of pink slips went out to untenured teachers across the state. Weeks later, they were hired back when the Legislature finally resolved the budget.

Even though Juneau Superintendent Mark Miller knew he was taking a risk, he decided to put his hopes in the Legislature flat-funding education, rather than lay off teachers.

Miller said he does not want to have to make that choice again.

“Anything we can do to help stabilize funding for education, so that we have an idea when we budget of how much money we’re going to be able to spend, is encouraging,” Miller said.

The House may vote on HB 287 Wednesday when it goes to the floor for a third reading. SB 131 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

KTOO and Alaska Public Media reporter Andrew Kitchenman contributed to this report.