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Regional Educators Brace For Proposed Budget Cuts Totaling More Than $3M

Berett Wilber/KUCB

Public schools in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands stand to lose more than $3 million under Gov. Mike Dunleavy's proposals to reduce state spending.

That's left regional educators hoping for the best — but bracing for the worst — as they prepare their budgets.

Dunleavy's proposals would hit school districts in a few different ways: Cuts to education funding this fiscal year. Cuts to education funding next fiscal year. And cuts to a number of state grants and services that educators use.

With multiple threats looming, Superintendent John Conwell said the Unalaska City School District (UCSD) has to prepare for all possibilities.

"Just stay calm and carry on," he told Unalaska's school board last week. "Go with our budget that we — for lack of a better word — have been promised. But have our back-up plan close at hand."

UCSD stands to lose about $80,000 from its current budget for fiscal year 2019.

That's money the Legislature appropriated last year — money the district planned on using to help pay for its two new teaching positions.

If the state reverses that funding, UCSD could draw on savings to pay out the contracts this year. But Conwell said the district's reserves won’t last forever, making Dunleavy's proposal for fiscal year 2020 even more alarming.

The plan would see UCSD's state funding slashed by about $1.2 million, which represents a big chunk of its roughly $8 million budget.

Conwell said the loss could mean cuts to school services.

"Keep on the front burner some strategies for making some quick reductions over the next year, if we need to," he told the board.

UCSD's budget committee is still discussing different strategies, but local educators have said they're worried that sports, after school activities, teaching positions, and class sizes could be affected.

That's on top of other state programs that Conwell said UCSD relies on — and that are currently on the governor's chopping block.

"The broadband assistance grant [could be] going away, the online with libraries grant [could be] going away, the ferry service [could be] going away," he said. "You know, the Alaska Marine Highway — we really depend on [it] to move our new teachers out here."

Still, UCSD has more stability and support than a lot of other districts.

Thanks to its size and the City of Unalaska's tradition of making the maximum contribution allowed by law, the district has been able to maintain staff, facilities, and programming despite recent lean years.

That has not been the case for the Pribilof School District, which runs the school in St. Paul and the correspondence learning program in St. George.

"We closed off a wing of our building," said Superintendent Brett Agenbroad. "We're certainly managing our lights and doors for heat and electricity. We're not traveling. We're not doing a lot of things. But at some point, it'll come down to personnel."

Agenbroad said he's been preparing to reduce his staff of five certified teachers to four in anticipation of further cuts.

He also said it's frustrating to watch the cumulative effect, especially as state officials have failed to find a long-term solution to Alaska's budget gap.

"We now have a governor who just stepped out of the Senate — who did nothing of any value that I'm personally aware of as far as funding the state," said Agenbroad. "I understand there's a House and a Senate, but the state Legislature was unable to find a plan to fund the government. So now, we're going to take the soft target of public education, and we're going to cut that."

Under Dunleavy's budget, the Pribilof School District would lose more than $330,000 between this fiscal year and the next.

But unlike Unalaska's district, Agenbroad said he's in no rush to draft multiple contingency plans.

"I've faced enough of these financial shenanigans that I'm just going to wait for the bottom line," he said. "I'm not going to get emotionally involved, because no one listens anyway. When I know what the funding is, I will prepare a budget and staff around that."

By statute, the Legislature has until April to finish the state budget, though lawmakers have held a number of overtime special sessions in recent years.

It's too soon to say how education funding will fare in the final plan. While many legislators have come out against Dunleavy's proposals, the governor has the power to veto line items from the budget.

That veto can only be overturned by a three-quarters supermajority vote.

Beyond Unalaska and the Pribilofs, the Aleutian Region School District and the Aleutians East Borough School District are also facing funding cuts.

Aleutian Region, which operates schools in Atka and Adak, stands to lose about $250,00 between this fiscal year and the next. For Aleutians East — with schools in Akutan, False Pass, King Cove, and Sand Point — the cuts would total about 1.2 million.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019.
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