As you may know, I was in Kodiak the weekend of March 8-11 and held a set of public meetings at the high school commons to address funding for education. This spring’s school district budget, combined with the governor’s no-growth budget plan for education, created a perfect storm for our community. I wanted a chance to hear people’s concerns. I also wanted to bring home some of the information that we get in Juneau that doesn’t necessarily make it into the news media or the public eye.
I am very grateful to the 200 people who attended the two meetings, who took time to voice their concerns. I heard you. Since returning to Juneau I’ve been sharing your worries with legislators in the House. I continue to work on the following things, which I think we’ll see happen before we leave Juneau:
• I expect to see an increase in funding for schools. I’m not sure how that will come, whether it’s in the foundation formula, or as specific appropriation to address ballooning costs.
• I expect us to tackle funding needs for more than one year, so Alaska’s school districts can plan ahead.
• I expect us to initiate an examination of our education system, including school funding and how to do it in a way that keeps dollars in the classroom. It’s not responsible for the Legislature to talk about funding cuts without helping to provide solutions for some of the cost drivers that are outside the school districts’ control, like energy and health care, expensive testing mandates, and education standards that impact our students and teachers.
During the public meetings I also shared some sobering information about Alaska’s total fiscal picture. I and my staff have since had good conversations with individual constituents about Alaska’s bigger structural budget issues and how we need to plan for these in the future.
I want to continue these conversations. I think they’re critical for Alaskans. My concern about Alaska’s future — 10, 20 or 30 years out — is very high. I think we have to be smart about the dollars that we have today, putting them in the places that yield results, like education, economic diversification and critical transportation infrastructure.
I was disappointed to read a newsletter to parents from Kodiak High School principal Bill Watkins, in which he claimed that I had described “oil as an investment and education as an expense.” (To see a copy of this letter, visit my blog at www.alanausterman.com.) I can’t understand how Mr. Watkins took that message away from the Thursday afternoon meeting. I thought my message was clear: If there is no oil in the pipeline, there is no money for education. Sadly for Alaskans, we depend on the oil industry for 85 to 95 cents out of every dollar we bring in in tax revenue. So, like it or not, we have to pay attention to oil in order to keep funding education.
I want to continue the conversation with Kodiak about Alaska’s fiscal future and how we can prepare ourselves for it. This is something I care deeply about, and I’ll be working with you all to figure out how to carry it forward in the year to come.
In the meantime, I’ll be focusing my energies in Juneau on education and doing my best to make sure we’re being smart about funding it for our kids.
Alan Austerman represents Distruct 36 including Kodiak Island Borough in the Alaska House of Representatives.