The House race between Democrat Donna Mears and Republican Forrest Wolfe in East Anchorage is one of several close races that could impact the future of education funding in the state. But here, it’s also personal: a nearby elementary school is one of six that could close as the Anchorage School District faces drastic budget cuts.
Mears has been inviting voters to talk with her at Cafecito Bonito every Saturday morning for the last several weeks. Last weekend, local parent Kristi Wood reached out and asked if they could specifically talk about education funding. About 30 people showed up to the combined event.
Wood told the group that she’s worried young couples won’t want to move to her neighborhood if it doesn’t have a school.
“As a property owner in Nunaka Valley, what happens to the value of my home if that building is emptied?” she asked.
Nunaka Valley and Wonder Park are two of the six schools the Anchorage School District could close as it faces a $68 million budget deficit. And both schools are in legislative districts with very close races.
In House District 21, which includes Nunaka Valley, Mears beat Wolfe by just 43 votes in the primary.
In House District 22, which includes Wonder Park, Democrat Ted Eischeid beat Republican Stanley Wright by just 180 votes. Eischeid was also at the cafe on Saturday.
Mears would like to see a significant increase to the base student allocation, or BSA. It’s a formula that determines how much money per student school districts get from the state. It hasn’t increased since 2017. At the same time, inflation has required districts to spend more money. For the Anchorage School District this year, that’s resulted in the massive deficit.
“I remember going to rallies for Kids Not Cuts by Great Alaska Schools in 2014, so this is not a new issue,” Mears said in an interview. “It’s just getting more attention because of where we are with the budget cycle and where we are with the election.”
Great Alaska Schools was a statewide coalition that called for increased public education funding. Alyse Galvin helped start the group and now she’s running as an independent for House District 14 in Midtown.
Galvin won 67% of the vote in her primary. She said voters in her district view public education funding as an economic issue. People in their 30s aren’t staying in the state as long as they used to, and birth rates are declining.
“We have, in Alaska, made a series of decisions that have not created a sense of security for our younger, more mobile workforce to stay,” Galvin said.
Galvin thinks this election could have a huge impact on the BSA if enough supporters win their state legislative races.
Her opponent, Republican Nick Danger, said he’s against increasing the BSA if it means raising taxes or lowering the PFD.
“I think we’ve already tapped everybody to the absolute brim,” he said. “You can’t just keep throwing money at something that’s broken.”
In pure dollars, Alaska’s per-pupil spending is one of the highest in the country, though when adjusted for the high cost of living in Alaska, it’s slightly less than the national average.
Back in East Anchorage, Mears’ Republican opponent for House District 21, Forrest Wolfe, is also opposed to raising taxes. He said he’s open to increasing the BSA, but he’d also like to see a voucher system that would allow parents to spend that money on private schools or homeschool.
“Allowing people to choose the educational path that’s going to best serve them and their family,” he said. “I think that could be a really nice balance that might actually get more support from some Republicans and conservative people.”
Wolfe has been knocking on doors in East Anchorage for the last several weeks to talk to voters. On a recent afternoon, he knocked on the door of a house with a Sarah Palin sign in the yard.
Jeff Garness, a civil and environmental engineer, opened the door. He said he’s worried about low math and reading scores in Alaska, and he told Wolfe he’d like to see public schools improve those test scores before the state increases funds. They talked for 20 minutes about a range of issues.
“You definitely sound like my kind of politician,” Garness told him, and agreed to put a sign in his yard.
Wolfe and Mears both know this is a close race. Most registered voters in House District 21 are either non-partisan or undeclared. But as the Nov. 8 election gets closer, they’re both hopeful that their visions for education – and for Alaska – win voters over.