Petersburg schools scramble to pay for new Alaska READS Act requirements

Petersburg elementary students
Reading teacher Eliza Warmack works with first graders on reading and writing at Stedman Elementary in Petersburg. (Rachel Cassandra/KFSK)

Alaska schools are preparing to meet the new state educational requirements of the READS Act this fall. The legislation aims to make sure that all Alaska students can read well—before they graduate third grade.

But implementing the law will cost schools a lot of money at a time when state funding for education remains flat. So, Petersburg’s school district is scrambling to figure out how to pay for the new requirements. 

Eliza Warmack is sitting at a circular desk with three first-graders on a recent morning. Warmack is a reading teacher in Petersburg. This class is for early readers who want to work on spelling. She picks out a book on stick bugs. Their scientific name — phasmids — is spelled with a P-H. Warmack is the only reading teacher at the school. This fall, the READS Act will change her work dramatically. 

She’s looking forward to some of the changes. But when she read through the nitty gritty of the legislation, she was worried.

“It was kind of frightening at first,” Warmack says, “because it seemed like a lot of rules and parameters were being placed upon us.”

Warmack isn’t the only educator in Petersburg who agrees with the intention of the new law, but feels a considerable amount of anxiety about it. 

Heather Conn, the principal of Petersburg’s elementary school, is also concerned. The law asks kids to repeat a grade if they don’t have a high enough score on the state’s standardized reading test. Conn says last year, nearly 80 percent of third graders in her school didn’t meet that mark. 

“We took an Alaska state test last April,” Conn said. “And based off of those results, I just about puked. Because it was not what I was expecting.”

Alaska performed second to last in reading levels last year, something the legislation aims to change. But kids are still recovering academically and emotionally in the wake of COVID. School funding from the state has been flat for six years — not even adjusted for inflation. And many schools in Alaska are understaffed. So, schools will have to figure out how to pay for new requirements with their withering budgets. 

Conn is especially worried about how to fit all the new instruction requirements into the school day. Kids who test below proficient will require extra reading instruction during school and those far below proficient will require instruction outside normal school hours.

The READS Act also requires additional testing and paperwork, summer school, teacher training, and an evidence-based curriculum. Conn agrees with the aim of the mandates. But she knows Petersburg’s seasonal work schedule means kids miss extra school days. She worries the mandates will push families away.

“My fear is that we’re going to see a decreased number of students in public education,” Conn says, “and more towards homeschool education.”

In the small Petersburg school district finance office, Karen Morrison is spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to implement the READS Act without breaking the budget. Morrison has been the director of finance for Petersburg schools for over a decade. She says the school has been operating on a bare-bones budget and staff for years. 

“I don’t even see where you could pull any cream off the top,” Morrison said. “There’s no cream. We’re as lean as we can be.”

Much of their latest budget crunch is due to increased utility costs. She says the price for heating fuel has risen 300% in the last few years. 

“We don’t have a choice but to keep our buildings heated,” she said. “That eats into teaching supplies. It eats into curriculum.”

The school has some COVID relief funds they can use for one-time costs. The district is in line for grants to pay for new curriculum costs and teacher training from the READS act. But they’ll still need to cover a budget gap in the realm of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Morrison sees the budget as a puzzle the community needs to solve. 

“It will actually be a community stakeholder and board decision on how we’re going to fit it all together,” she said. “And I see it being a combination of several different things, definitely leveraging our grants.”

There are still many unknowns in the specific requirements of the READS Act. Guidelines are rolling out as the state education department publishes them. And final regulations will be open for public comment and voted on in April. 

Back in the classroom, Eliza Warmack is wrapping up her reading group.

“Thank you for doing this investigation with me,” Warmack said. 

She’ll see these kids again next week. But next fall, she’s not sure how her job will look.

“Ok, see you next time,” Warmack said.   

“Bye,” the kids said. 

Petersburg’s school district is hosting a series of gatherings to help families understand how the READS Act will impact them. You can find more information on the school’s online calendar.

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the READS Act will not require school districts to implement a new reading curriculum, as long as their current curriculum is evidence-based.

Previous articleFrom abortion to zoning: Short summaries of every bill in the 33rd Alaska State Legislature
Next articleAnchorage Assembly leaders demand response from mayor following scathing allegations