Dunleavy’s proposed budget would cut $6.4 million from Southwest Alaska schools

Dillingham Elementary School, June 2018. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

In the weeks since Gov. Mike Dunleavy released his proposed budget, educators around Bristol Bay have been assessing how the proposal would affect their districts.

At a public hearing on the school’s operating budget Monday night, Dillingham Superintendent Jason Johnson laid out the district’s approach.

“We’ve developed a worst-case-scenario budget pending the legislature and where they go with this budget,” he said. “That would be a lot of work with the school board, with the staff here and the community to see what that would look like. Regionally, all the superintendents in the region have agreed to go forward with the current budgets. As a district here, we feel comfortable to move forward here with this budget. Accept potential deficits next year and then readjust.”

Under Dunleavy’s proposed budget, the region’s school districts would lose around $6.4 million. Of that, the Department of Education and Early Development estimated that $2,741,708 would be cut from Southwest Region, $1,910,004 from the Lake and Peninsula Borough, $1,376,030 from Dillingham and $376,765 from the Bristol Bay Borough.

Additionally, the proposed budget would cut the state’s per-student school spending by 25 percent. While the proposal doesn’t reduce the base student allocation, it does decrease the amount given to individual districts. Johnson said reductions of this magnitude would not only impact extracurricular programs like athletics; they would severely impair the school’s most critical services.

“You’re looking at several administrative positions, 15 or so instructional positions. It would be a hit that would be very impossible for the district to overcome. Certainly no way for students to get the education they deserve,” he said.

The cuts to public education are part of a stringent proposal aimed at balancing the state budget while paying back full Permanent Fund Dividends. The district would likely be affected by downsizing funding to other sectors as well, like the City of Dillingham.

“What we kind of thought initially was that a $3-400,000 decrease in the city’s allocation to the school district might result in an $8-900,000 overall impact, as we lose support from impact aid because of that. So it’s pretty significant. If the city’s allocation drops, it hits us two or threefold here at the district,” Johnson said.

In the face of the governor’s proposal, the Bristol Bay Borough School District is also staying the course. Superintendent Bill Hill said that the district will maintain its current staff and services until the budget is finalized. Still, he said that the governor’s proposal is deeply worrisome for rural school districts, where staffing and other resources are already
stretched thin.

“Bush Alaska has done without music, without a nurse, without a real school counselor,” Hill said. “We’ve done without a lot of things for many years already. So we’re really sort of at the lower limit of the staffing that we want to keep on hand.”

The proposal would also alter the base student allocation. The proposed budget would cut the state’s per-student schools spending by 25 percent. While the proposal doesn’t reduce the BSA, it does decrease the amount allocated to individual districts; instead of changing the base student allocation, under the proposal the state would under-fund it.

According to Hill, the school district is one of the largest employers in the borough. That means that these reductions would reverberate throughout the community.

“If we have to lay staff off due to cuts in our budget, you’re reducing the number of people employed in the borough, you reduce people’s ability to live in the borough. It really has a huge impact on not just the school district but the whole community,” Hill said.

The proposal came in the wake of the administration’s supplemental budget request in January to cut $20 million for education in this year’s funding. That money was apportioned during the last legislative session and has not yet been sent out to schools. Dillingham didn’t factored that funding into its spending for this year, and Johnson said that moving forward, they will continue to take a conservative approach.

“Certainly not adding a whole lot of new things and new programs, but be very conservative this year with the knowledge that we can support our current staff and current hires, even if the governor’s proposal were to come to light,” he said. “Hopefully, again, we’ll work with legislators to show the negative impact it would have, not only on our kids today, but certainly the future of Alaska.”

In the coming weeks, regional school districts will send representatives to discuss the funding cuts with the Legislature, which is currently negotiating the budget. If the governor exercises his power to line-item veto money from specific programs, 45 of the 60 legislators will need to vote to overrule it.

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