By DAVID BOYLE
Gov. Mike Dunleavy released his 2023 budget with few changes in K-12 education funding. The education industry and its special interest cohorts may declare that Dunleavy is “flat funding” education, and that is correct, in part. Legislators may reply that the Base Student Allocation has been flat-funded since 2016. And they would also be correct, in part.
Here’s the rest of the story: If the Base Student Allocation has been flat-funded for the past 5 years, why has K-12 funding increased by nearly $43 million over the same period?
The funding for K-12 education consists of many factors, just one of which is the BSA. Some call this funding formula “the student multiplier effect,” which maximizes funding for a school district.
For example, the Anchorage School District final budget for 2020-21 showed 42,862 students. Once this number is put through the funding formula, the total number of students grows to 75,066. So, even though the BSA is flat-funded, the number of students in the calculation grows by 75 percent, which neutralizes the flat funding argument.
Dunleavy also reinstated the state’s school bond debt reimbursement program which has been put on hold by the governor and Legislature until 2025.
The reimbursement he proposes would apply to those bonds passed before 2014, and the appropriation asked for by the governor is $79 million. This is great news for the education/architecture/construction complex.
Under this reimbursement program, the State would pay 100 percent of a school’s old bond debt, prior to 2014, which will incentivize new school bonds on local election ballots.
With the old school bond reimbursement program, a school district could build Taj Mahal-like buildings and the State would have to foot a majority of the bill.
When the debt was issued in the past, there were various levels the State had committed to reimburse — 90%, 80%, 70%, 60% — based on statute. There is currently a moratorium on the reimbursement of new debt.
That was like the state paying 80 percent of your mortgage, allowing you to build a much more expensive house because it’s “free.” The State has very little cost control over a new school project.
This reimbursement proposal may be a political calculation because of the upcoming election year, with the promise now at 100 percent for those old bonds.
The school bond debt reimbursement is tagged for 18 local governments, including Anchorage, where there is now 7.8 million square feet of heated space for its 42,000 students. More accurately, there are fewer than 40,000 students who are actually in those facilities, due to homeschooling or charter schools that are not counted in the overall square footage.
The last time Anchorage had student enrollment that was this low was three decades ago, when the district was 1.8 million square feet less than it is today. Building has been aggressive through the decades.
Yet already the Anchorage School District is planning bond packages for April’s ballot. The total is $111 million over the next two years, which more than consumes the $79 million the State would be giving in property tax relief. That $111 million is part of a six-year capital plan the school board approved earlier this month. Voters will see this on the ballot, and property taxpayers will be responsible for 100 percent of the bond.
Despite the increase in funding over the last five years, only 40 percent of Alaska students are proficient in reading at grade level. It gets even worse for math — only 32 percent of all Alaska students are proficient at grade level.