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Amid Education Spending Clash, Olson Favors Increased Per-Student Funds

Two days after the scheduled end of session and Alaska lawmakers are still wrangling with how they’ll fund public schools. And until the education question is settled, the state’s capital budget is in legislative limbo.

At issue is whether lawmakers will significantly increase the Base Student Allocation—the money each district gets for every student enrolled—or if they’ll opt instead to give schools money through one-time, lump-sum funding bumps.

“This is the thing that drives some of those administrators in some of these schools kind of to the point of dizziness because they don’t know where they’re going to be at,” Senator Donny Olson (D-Golovin) said Tuesday between last-minute sessions in Juneau.

Olson supports a proposal raising the BSA by $185. The House has gotten behind the increase, earmarking more than $250 million to fund it over the next three years. But Olson’s Senate colleagues have not. Instead, the Senate’s plan opts to increases funding outside the BSA formula, with annual payments to schools. The Senate has pledged more than $300 million to do so over the next three years, but keeping that money outside the BSA means it won’t necessarily be built in to future funding.

Olson says the funding bumps may help in the short term, but he says the BSA needs an increase so administrators can count on that funding down the road.

“If it’s inside the base student allocation, then its kind of set in stone,” Olson said. “It’d be very difficult to ever change. And that’s what the issues are with some of the people that are dealing with it now.”

Educators in the region say it’s the kind of certainty they need in the face of rising costs.

“Nothing seems to go down: fuel, and utilities etcetera seem to rise, insurance, you name it,” said Bering Strait School District Superintendent Brett Agenbroad.

Agenbroad said the proposed $185 BSA bump is good news for rural schools, and an important signal from lawmakers who haven’t touched the BSA formula since 2011.

“The $185 bump, in my personal opinion, in Bering Strait School District, is really a good-faith effort of the legislature for funding public education,” he said.

Wednesday, it’ll be up to a group of six legislators—including lawmakers from Bethel and others Olson said know about education in western Alaska—to decide if the BSA will grow, and if so, by how much.

“I think we do have some strong advocates from the Bush side,” Olson said of the committee hoping to reconcile the House and the Senate plans for education funding, “but we are still up against some heavy-duty people from the Anchorage bowl area.”

Legislative leadership has said any compromise should include money both inside and outside the BSA formula. Just when a deal will be brokered is unknown: Mike Hawker, the chair of the six-person education committee, said in Juneau Tuesday he wants to take the time needed to rewrite the bill in a way that makes both chambers happy.

“This is not going to be something that we rush through,” Hawker said. “It will come together really as quickly as we can find consensus in the building over today, tomorrow or throughout the coming week.”

Wednesday is the legislature’s third day beyond their 90-day session deadline. They can meet for an additional 29 days without running afoul of the Alaska Constitution.

APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez contributed information to this story.