Unalaska’s Superintendent talks potential BSA increase, other education bills that could affect local schools
Unalaska City School District Superintendent Jim Wilson is following Alaska's legislative session closely, tracking education bills that could affect local schools. And regularly updates the community at UCSD’s bi-weekly school board meetings.
Wilson sat down with KUCB’s Sofia Stuart-Rasi last week to discuss bills involving pronoun use for LGBTQ students, resources for students interested in technical schools after graduation, and a potential increase in the base student allocation.
UCSD is facing a roughly $400,000 budget deficit and a new mandate from the Alaska READS Act. The legislation requires schools to ensure students from prekindergarten to third grade can read at grade level — and Wilson said it could be difficult to implement with more state support.
JIM WILSON: I think the biggest conversation statewide is related to an increase in what's known as the base student allocation. That's how schools get their funding from the state of Alaska. And we've basically experienced flat funding since 2016, which has made it really, really difficult for schools statewide to be able to continue to fund programs. As we all know, the cost of living has increased significantly since that point in time. So as educational leaders statewide, we are advocating for an increase in the BSA. Senate Bill 52 requests a $1,000 increase in the BSA. So that would raise the annual contribution for the state to $6,960 per student, which would really provide a lot of relief to all schools statewide. The other bill on the House side is House Bill 65. It was originally a $1,250 increase, but that has been changed to be an $800 increase. It was amended. It would provide approximately $600,000 in additional funding, which would be amazing. And so I fully expect that there'll be additional amendments, and it would be a compromised amount at some point in time.
KUCB: If this does pass — and you mentioned $600,000 for the school district — what does that look like?
WILSON: It’ll allow us to look at a few things. The foremost would be looking at how to support the Alaska READS Act. It would allow us to look at the staffing positions and decide: Can we rehire additional positions to be able to help to support the Alaska READS Act and the students in the district? But also, just to cover the cost that we're seeing in terms of our deficits. We've had a $500,000 increase in insurance over the last two years. We've seen a $300,000 increase in heating fuel. So it's just going to help us to be able to pay our monthly bills as well.
WILSON: Yeah, definitely. This is a bill proposed by the Governor [Mike Dunleavy], and he's calling it his parental rights bill. Schools regularly teach things like sex education, reproduction — just a variety of different topics that sometimes can be viewed as sensitive. And I think at Unalaska City schools, we've always been good about notifying parents about those items. But not all schools do that same thing. And so, he's really looking for legislation that mandates that schools do provide that notice to parents. I think that part, to me, probably isn't very controversial. I think we all believe in involving parents in the educational system. The other part of the bill — that I think is going to get a little bit more pushback — is there are some restrictions there on schools’ ability to talk with or be able to support students who are transgender or transitioning. And some very specific language about having separate facilities for people in terms of their sex assigned at birth. And I think the conversation centered around those will be a little bit more controversial, I would imagine.
KUCB: Is that something that the district is looking into, with or without the House bill?
WILSON: We already have. We do have students across a variety of spectrums, I think, as all schools do. And we've met with many families in my time here and tried to work out a plan that is successful for their families. And we feel good about that. We've always been able to meet with individual families and make sure that everybody's comfortable with the situation. And so for me, a statewide approach takes away some of that local control. And that ability for me as an administrator to meet with families and try to figure out what the best plan is for them moving forward.
KUCB: If it does pass — or doesn't pass — how will that affect the school district?
WILSON: If it doesn't pass, there'll be no impact. If it does pass, there's very specific language in there, for example, about not being able to refer to a student by a pronoun that isn't their assigned sex at birth. And so sometimes you may have a high school student who, for whatever reason, hasn't been fully comfortable having that conversation with their parents. And teachers, right now, can talk to the students and help them to be addressed about what they're comfortable with. The state legislation would require that parents sign off on whatever pronoun the schools are using.
KUCB: Is that something that you are concerned about if it's passed?
WILSON: I am concerned about it. I think that, you know, it's a double-edged sword. I think absolutely parents should be involved in conversations regarding their kids — 100%. But I also know, in my time in education, that we have students sometimes that are from a family environment that maybe those conversations aren't feasible. Or maybe they've tried to have those conversations — and you know, they may be 18 and may not be fully supported by their family members. So I think as a school, our job is to always support students and to support families both. So sometimes, this legislation could put us in conflict with being able to support students as fully as we want to.
KUCB: All right, let's move to House Bill 31.
WILSON: So House Bill 31 is a change in what's known as the Alaska Performance Scholarship. And I'm just super happy about this change. Previously, the Alaska Performance Scholarship was good for both those folks who want to go to college and also those folks who want to go to technical school. But for those folks who wanted to go to a technical school, they had to do the exact same academic requirements as somebody going to college. So to me, that never made a lot of sense. If we have a student who's going to Stanford, and they're taking four years of math, and four years of science, English, social studies, etc. But I have a student who wants to go to AVTEC [Alaska Vocational Technical Center] and be a welder, they need to have different courses. Not that those other core courses aren't critically important, but we also want to see them in welding classes and other things. And so what this change does is recognize that. First of all, it says that there are different career paths for students, and we support them at all career paths. And so those students who want to pursue a technical track, it allows them to count some of those years and what they call “career clusters.” Which would be welding, woodworking, manufacturing, computer design — that they can count those years in place of some of those academic standards. Not all — we all recognize that irregardless of what your training is after high school, having a solid foundation and education is important. I think counting those career and technical years that the students have in high school is a good step in the right direction. And then it also just raises that amount of money. So it raises the top tier to $7,000, from about $5,000 previously. So it’s a little bit more of an incentive for students to stay in school, to stay in state. But then also to be able to pursue a variety of tracks that they feel are going to be applicable to their future.
KUCB: Is that a big interest with students here?
WILSON: It is a big interest. We actually have a group of students right now that are on tour in AVTEC, which is the vocational school in Alaska. There's many of them, but the one in Seward is probably the most well-known. And I would say that we have four or five students a year who go to AVTEC and — my goodness — get trained in a variety of things. From radiation technicians to refrigeration mechanics to diesel mechanics to welding. And then for most of them, they come back here to work because this is where they want to live. They want this to be their community. So I think it's an important step.