Mat-Su sales tax ordinance postponed indefinitely

After hearing from more than forty people in a packed chamber, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly has indefinitely postponed an ordinance to place a two-percent sales tax before borough voters.

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The sales tax proposal before the borough assembly on Tuesday came from a request by the Mat-Su Borough School Board. With continuing uncertainty around state funding, and with flat funding from the borough, the district hopes to use a sales tax to boost education funding in the Mat-Su. The assembly ultimately voted six-to-one to postpone the ordinance indefinitely.

Tim Walters, President of the Mat-Su Education Association, spoke in favor of a new revenue stream for local schools. He said continuing the status quo will lead to larger and larger class sizes.

”What I see in my colleagues’ classroom, that means pile another ten chairs in back,” Walters said. “This year, we’ll see high school classes in the forties. You’ll hear stories of Kindergarten classes in the thirties.”

While others spoke in favor of the sales tax, the majority of those who addressed the assembly were opposed.

Representatives of all three incorporated cities in the borough spoke in opposition to placing a sales tax on the ballot. Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle said labeling the tax as a measure to fund education doesn’t fall in line with what the state requires of area-wide taxes.

“Under [the] state constitution, you cannot dedicate taxes,” Cottle said. “So what you do once you collect the tax money is up to you, and it’s up to each assembly each year.”

Many who spoke on Tuesday raised similar points, and say that while the current assembly may hold true to putting sales tax money to education, future assemblies would have no legal requirement to do so.

Those in opposition to the tax cite multiple concerns, including hurting local business and a disproportionate impact on the poor. Many also believe the school district could be doing more to reduce its budget without impacting the classroom. Mike Kelly is one of those.

“[The Mat-Su Borough School Board] voted to maintain the janitors, even though there’s about a $2 million savings in outsourcing,” Kelly said.

Another issue that came up multiple times is school performance in Alaska relative to the amount spent. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Alaska spends the second most on education per pupil in the country at just over $20,000. Mike Alexander said that spending is not translating to better results relative to other states.

“We’re buying an Escalade, we think, and we’re getting a Yugo, because our kids are testing horribly,” Alexander said. “If you’re top ten, top twenty, I’d go hard out for you, but you’re not.”

Alaska is below the national average both in terms of graduation rate and standardized test performance.

Jillian Morrissey, public information officer for the school district, said using statewide performance numbers to describe results in the Mat-Su isn’t apples to apples.

“When we use those numbers that are statewide, it’s taking into account all of these rural villages all over the State of Alaska,” Morrissey said. “So, our graduation rate is different than when you look statewide.”

Morrissey is correct. According to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, graduation rates in the Mat-Su are higher than the state average. Morrissey said that’s not a coincidence.

“There has been a really big effort in our core schools to make sure that our graduation rates continue to rise, and we’re seeing that trend,” Morrissel said. “That’s happening in the last five to ten years, which is really exciting.”

As for high per-student spending, Jillian Morrissey said the district is looking at ways to operate more efficiently, including capital improvements and distance learning, but that basic costs are continually rising.

“We’re one of the biggest users of utilities in the Mat-Su Borough, so it’s expensive to keep the lights on and keep the heat going and all of those kinds of things,” Morrissey said.

After testimony, the assembly discussed what to do with the sales tax proposal. The deadline to place items on the borough’s October ballot is this week, though the revised version of the ordinance calls for a special election in January. In the end, the assembly voted to postpone the ordinance indefinitely, with only Assembly Member Jim Sykes objecting.

While the current sales tax proposal was effectively killed, the conversation concerning other means of education funding is not over. The assembly directed Borough Manager John Moosey to speak to cities, the school district, and local business leaders to try to hammer out a solution. Moosey expects to report back to the assembly in November.

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