‘Devastating’ and ‘significant’: Educators react to Dunleavy’s budget proposal

University of Alaska Southeast students rally in opposition to Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed cuts to education. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin, KTOO – Juneau)

One of the areas most affected by Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal is education. About 23 percent of K-12 funding would be cut. The governor also proposed a 41 percent cut to the University of Alaska system.

During his unveiling of the budget proposal, Dunleavy said education is one of the largest cost drivers in the state, and that efficiencies needed to be made.

“It’s going to compel school districts to evaluate how they spend their money,” Dunleavy said. “As you know, spending is a local control issue. It’s not controlled by the state. The funding is.”

In a press conference held shortly after the budget was released, University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen stated that in the past few years, the University has already made significant cuts to adjust to smaller budgets.

“We’ve laid off over 1,200 faculty and staff. We’ve cut over 50 academic and degree certificate programs. We have been forced to raise tuition, and we have watched our enrollment decline,” Johnsen said.

University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen speaks to reporters about proposed cuts to the university system. (Photo by Dan Bross, KUAC -Fairbanks)

He called the cuts proposed by the governor today “devastating.” He says the University has never had to deal with cuts of this magnitude. One of the programs that the budget proposal would cut is the WWAMI medical school program, the only means for students to become doctors in-state.

Johnsen says if the budget proposal goes through, he’s confident that other programs would also have to be cut and campuses would need to shut down.

“I respect the governor’s boldness and his vision for a sustainable and growing Alaska,” Johnsen said. “This budget however, at least how it impacts Alaska’s university system, guts one of our state’s most powerful tools for realizing that vision.”

In Anchorage, UAA chancellor Cathy Sandeen says she’ll be meeting with students on Friday to discuss the cuts, and then she’s going to Fairbanks to meet with the other two chancellors in the UA system about how to move forward.

Public schools across the state would see a total loss of about $300 million under the governor’s proposed budget. Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop says in the state’s largest school district, about one in six Anchorage residents will be affected by these cuts.

“Forty-eight thousand students, 6,000 employees, and that’s not even including parents that come in and out of our doors,” Bishop said. “So we’re a significant piece of what we know as our society here in Anchorage.”

Under the proposal, the district would see a decrease of about 110 million dollars. Bishop says that would take the district back to budget levels from more than a decade ago.

That doesn’t include inflation and rising costs.

“Over ten years, the increase in salaries went up about 30 percent, but the increase in health insurance went up 160 percent,” Bishop said.

Bishop says in that time period, the district also introduced more STEM programs as well as career technical classes. She says these classes, while beneficial to students going into Alaska’s workforce, are also more expensive, serve smaller class sizes and likely would be the first programs to be cut.

Bishop adds that while the cuts would be felt hard in Anchorage, rural districts would have an even rougher time getting quality educators to teach there.

“Even with resources, it’s been hard to attract people to our entire state given the set up of different systems, whether it’s retirement, distance, things like that,” Bishop said. “It’s different in rural Alaska.”

During his campaign and as governor, Dunleavy prioritized public safety and job creation. Bishop argues having a strong education system is vital to those goals, and education cuts run opposite to the governor’s priorities.