Austerman gets an earful on school budget from Kodiak parents

Rep. Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak) talks to members of the Kodiak public during a discussion on the Alaska Legislature's funding for education, Thursday, March 8, 2012 in Kodiak High School. (James Brooks photo)

KODIAK — Rep. Alan Austerman got an earful from Kodiak residents angry at plans to cut school funding, but he called the reaction a good thing, much better than the lack of feedback state and local governments receive on most topics.

“This right here is the best response I’ve seen in years,” he said to an audience of about 50 people gathered at Kodiak High School. “You’re here, asking questions and putting me on the spot, and that’s great.”

Austerman’s two-hour fiscal explanation and question session was intended to show Kodiak the problems state legislators face in Juneau. The principal issue is the need to address declining oil revenue, which will begin to cause deficits and exhaust state savings accounts within a decade if spending continues to grow, he said.

“Given the decline in the amount of oil coming down the pipeline, this number is not sustainable in the long term,” he said.

Although the state has a $4 billion surplus this year, it faces skyrocketing health care and education costs. The rise in education costs is driven by the cost of the state’s public employee and teacher retirement system, which was badly mismanaged by auditors, causing a shortfall in the billions.

As currently proposed, the Legislature expects to spend about $14,290 per student, Austerman said. Add money required for the retirement system, school construction and other costs, and that amount jumps to $22,230 per student. It’s a figure only expected to increase as retired teachers live longer than expected, using more expensive health care to survive.

“It’s these two big elephants that are driving us over the cliff,” Austerman said of health care and education.

Kodiak parents had a hard time understanding why schools should be held accountable for increases they’re not responsible for.

“The school district budget is being tightened like there’s something we can do about it,” said parent Suzanne Rapoza. “I understand belt-tightening, but it seems like passing the buck to me.”

School board president Melissa Borton agreed.

“I can understand tightening belts,” she said, “but I want to see it’s done equitably.”

The Kodiak Island Borough School District faces a $3.5 million budget deficit next fiscal year, but Austerman said he expects more funding from the state and borough governments to make up much of that gap. Gov. Sean Parnell has pledged an additional $30 million in one-time funding to Alaska school districts next year.

Austerman cautioned that while that money may balance the books this year, it doesn’t change the long-term picture.

“As the decline in oil continues and school funding goes up, do you fall off the cliff in one fell swoop or do you try to address it right now?” he asked. “I don’t want to become a California, and if we don’t start paying attention to where our economic base is, we could become a California.”

Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at editor@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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