Educators, students and parents gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol Monday night to call for more education funding.
Tom Klaameyer is president of NEA-Alaska, a statewide union of public school employees. He said state funding is at the root of stalled negotiations with teachers’ unions across the state.
“Districts want to hire the best and the brightest for their students,” he told the crowd. “They want to provide solid healthcare benefits, and they don’t want to cut programs and shutter schools. But they’re stuck between a rock and the BSA.”
The BSA — or base student allocation — is the amount of money per student school districts receive from the state. It hasn’t increased substantially since 2017. Last year, the state approved a $30 increase that goes into effect in July. But many school leaders say it’s not enough to keep up with rising inflation.
The Juneau teachers’ union declared an impasse in its negotiations with the district last month. Superintendent Bridget Weiss said the $30 increase isn’t enough to give teachers the contract they deserve.
“If we committed the $243,000 we would get from that $30 BSA solely to teacher salaries and nothing else, that would mean a 0.25% increase each year over each of the next three years,” she said. “It is inadequate.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed keeping the BSA at $5,960 next year. The Alaska Association of School Boards is calling for an increase of at least $860.
“We are meeting increased needs with fewer resources every single day,” Weiss said. “When does the Legislature get held accountable for putting us in this impossible situation by not fully funding one of the very most vital aspects of our Alaskan communities?”
Some rally-goers held signs calling for a $1,086 BSA increase.
But that’s not the only challenge legislators are considering this session. Juneau Sen. Jesse Kiehl has introduced a bill to give teachers the option to pay into a pension, which he said would help with teacher retention.
“That’s a lot of money,” Kiehl said, referring to a $1,086 increase. “That’s about $220 million. Are our kids worth it? You bet they are. I’ve got your first $15 or $20 million, because pensions cost less than the system we have today for retirement.”
Students like Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School eighth grader Inde Eckerson are experiencing the statewide teacher shortage firsthand. He said large class sizes are tough on teachers and distracting to students.
“I think our classes are way too crowded. We have too many people,” he said. “I mean, it’s fun, but it gets a little too crazy and then you can’t really learn.”
Several freshman legislators joined rally organizers on the steps of the capitol. Juneau Rep. Sara Hannan highlighted three legislators who left teaching jobs to come to Juneau: Rep. Maxine Dibert of Fairbanks, Rep. Rebecca Himschoot of Sitka and Sen. Jesse Bjorkman of Nikiski.
“We have dozens of new colleagues working with us who campaigned on this issue,” Hannan said.
The rally ended with a song led by Dzantik’i Heeni music teacher Mike Bucy.
“Education built the nation,” he sang. “Increase the base student allocation. Pass this legislative test, and give our kids the best.”
Bucy said he’s hopeful the 33rd Legislature will substantially increase school funding this year, and that reading and math scores will rise along with it.