The budget that legislators approved last week and will send to the governor for his signature into law or veto would provide about $425,000 in one-time additional state funding to the Wrangell school district for the 2023-2024 classroom year.
That would deliver almost a 9% boost to the district’s total operating budget revenue, which is comprised of state money (more than 60%), a borough contribution (32%) and federal dollars.
“It will still need to pass the governor, so it’s not guaranteed,” Bill Burr, Wrangell schools superintendent, said last week. The district is scheduled in June to adopt its final spending plan for the 2023-2024 school year, he said. “We will update the budget to reflect the increase, if it is not vetoed.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not publicly stated whether he will approve the increase in state funding for public education. He did not propose any increase in the budget that he submitted to lawmakers at the start of the session in January, leaving it to legislators to decide an amount.
The Wrangell district has used temporary federal pandemic relief payments and savings — which are declining — to balance its budget the past few years. The federal aid will run out at the end of the next school year, Burr said.
State funding for public schools has not increased since 2017.
Though public education supporters from across the state pushed hard this session for a permanent increase to the state’s funding formula — which is based on enrollment numbers — resistance in the Republican-led House blocked a change in the formula. Instead, the House and Senate agreed on a one-time boost in state money totaling $175 million for districts statewide.
It’s the largest single-year increase in public education spending in state history.
The appropriation represents about a 15% increase in state funding for K-12 education, though advocates point out that inflation is up 25% since the last increase in the formula.
With the one-year boost, funding that goes directly to school districts represents just under one-quarter of the $6.1 billion unrestricted state general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Despite the welcome news of the additional funding, school districts will continue to see the same problems until the Legislature approves a permanent increase, National Education Association Alaska Board President Tom Klaameyer told the Alaska Beacon last week.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t address long-term systemic needs in the school system that have been caused by virtually a decade of flat funding and the erosion that inflation has caused on the school district budgets,” he said.
The lack of sufficient state support, and the uncertainty of annual budget battles in the Legislature, makes it hard for school districts to retain programs and recruit teachers, Klaameyer said.
Senate President Gary Stevens was in a good mood after lawmakers approved the budget and adjourned last Thursday after a one-day special session to reach a compromise on the spending plan. Less than half of the members in the Republican-led House majority voted for the final budget, but it was enough when combined with the Democratic-led minority to win passage on a 26-14 vote.
The budget passed the Senate earlier in the day with just two votes against the bill.
“We wound up with a moderate (Permanent Fund) dividend and a lot of money to education … and with a balanced budget. I mean, what more can you ask out of life?” Stevens told the Beacon.
The Alaska Beacon, an independent, donor-funded news organization, contributed to this report. Alaskabeacon.com.