House considers BSA bump as more poor test results released

After three years of flat funding, school districts around the state are attempting creative ideas in their budgets as well as additional layoffs.

Fairbanks schools face a projected $8 million shortfall and are on the verge of shutting down hockey, cheerleading and cutting 50 teachers, but nothing’s final until the Alaska Legislature passes the education budget.

The Lake and Peninsula Borough School District wants to shave 20 days off its school year, resetting it at Sept. 5-May 1. They can do it with Department of Education approval. It would save the 13 schools between $400,000 and $500,000.

Anchorage School District teachers are set for a 1 percent to 1.5 percent raise amid a 30 percent hike in utility bills and health care costs. ASD sent early notices to 68 teachers and 18 janitors.

Education officials are in Juneau this week lobbying on a last ditch hope: Anchorage Democrat Rep. Les Gara’s House Bill 339 that would boost the Base Student Allocation by $100 per student. If passed, it would move up the BSA to $6,130 per student and would add $25 million to the budget for the 2019 fiscal year that starts July 1.

Dozens of officials flew to Juneau for what’s traditionally the last week of the legislative session. The fiscal year 2019 budget proposed by the governor and passed by the House designates flat funding for education, but how to fund it remains under debate in the face of a roughly $2.7 billion revenue shortage to fund Alaska’s $4.5 billion operating budget.

Where will the money come from?

That question was left up in the air when the Alaska House sent a standalone education budget over to the Senate on Feb. 7 that didn’t designate a funding source for the full $1.3 billion education bill. Like the rest of the operating budget, it could come from tapping earnings from the Permanent Fund or from the Constitutional Budget Reserve.

Even with so much undone, school officials try to be optimistic.

“I haven’t given up hope of a raise in the BSA,” said ASD’s Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson, speaking from Juneau. “Some legislators expressed support for it and some are very concerned they need to find the funding before they can legitimately discuss whether it can be increased.”

David Boyle, representing the Alaska Policy Forum, submitted testimony against the BSA increase. The forum acts as a public watchdog on government spending and policies.

“We could support this bill to increase the BSA if, and only if, it had some accountability metrics on student achievement required from the districts/schools,” Boyle wrote.

The Alaska goal is to improve student achievement and increase the opportunity for life success for all students, Boyle said.

“This bill does not do that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, this bill which throws more money at the education problem actually incentivizes poor performance by schools/districts.”

That’s because if schools perform poorly, they get more funding to improve, he said.

But school officials see increasing the BSA as an equitable way to get schools across the state equitable funding increases.

Since fiscal year 2017 began in July 2016, the BSA has remained flat at $5,930. Over the past decade, the BSA was increased three times, starting in 2009 fiscal year at $5,480. Today, the BSA is $450 more than it was a decade ago.

Advocates for increasing the BSA said it will simply keep up with inflation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator suggests the BSA should be $6,200 per student to keep up with inflation since 2009.

Poor performance

ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop called into the Finance Committee hearing April 10 to urge the BSA increase. She lamented the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP results (released the same day) that placed Alaska’s fourth graders “dead last in the nation” in reading, she said.

Only 28 percent of Alaska’s fourth grade students performed at or above the proficient level on NAEP testing. For eighth graders, only 26 percent showed proficiency in reading.

The 2017 NAEP reading and mathematics assessments were given to a representative sample of fourth and eighth grade students in public schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. Department of Defense schools at the beginning of 2017.

On the other side of the spectrum, “Alaska is one of the top 10 states in the nation” for education spending, Bishop added.

“We invest more than other states already. It’s no secret that everything costs more in Alaska and that’s not only true for education,” Bishop said. “Roads, health care, eating out and drilling for oil” all cost more in Alaska, she said.

“But we must invest more,” Bishop added, describing students as Alaska’s future.

Critics of raising the BSA and giving schools more money cite concerns that the state doesn’t get enough for its money when students perform poorly.

The NAEP results track with scores from the Performance Evaluation for Alaska’s Schools or PEAKS last school year. It showed more than half of all students from grades three to 10 aren’t up to proficient levels in math, English and science.

Tim Parker, president of the National Education Association-Alaska Chapter, said NAEP and PEAK tests are “quick dip sticks that don’t measure a lot of the standards that we’re trying to push students to know: analysis and critical thinking.”

Rising costs, declining enrollment

Anderson, ASD’s chief financial officer, attributes the Anchorage district’s $13.1 million deficit to several causes that are exacerbated by rising costs and flat budgets.

“We still have inflationary costs. One is utilities. Our power rate increased over 30 percent when ML&P (Municipal Light and Power) increased rates to pay for the new generation plant they installed a few years ago,” Anderson said.

Health care costs have increased for the nearly 6,000 ASD employees. ASD also has schools that are declining in enrollment, which subtracts funding in the BSA as well as the Education Foundation Formula from school allocations.

Over the past five years, the Juneau School District absorbed cuts representing $10 million. They face another $3 million cut this year that takes out 33 administrative positions and reduces the teaching staffs by 10 percent, Juneau School District Board President Josh Keaton testified.

In Fairbanks, where hockey and cheerleading program cuts were under debate, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is projecting a decrease of 57 students for a total projected enrollment of 13,643 for the 2018-19 academic year. That enrollment drop equates to an $859,463 less projected funding from the state.

Alaska’s population has lost about 2,629 people in 2017 due to employment layoffs and the current recession. But the Mat-Su Valley grew by 1,612 people and the Mat-Su School District is one of the few that continues to grow.

Total enrollment in the state’s schools K-12 counted at 129,790 in 2017-18. The previous school year, 129,969 students were enrolled.

Since 2014-15, student enrollment increased from 128,804, or 886 more students overall today than four years ago.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

04/11/2018 - 12:36pm