FAIRBANKS — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy rolled out a sliced down supplemental budget Monday that included a $20 million cut to education and a $2 million cut to the Village Public Safety Officer program, sparking concern among Fairbanks area legislators.
Last session, the legislature approved a bill to forward-fund education for this year’s budget in an effort to avoid handing out pink slips to teachers, as has been done in years past. However, the bipartisan effort to bolster education funding may be short-lived as the governor’s supplemental budget, Senate Bill 39, looks to do away with the money for teachers and school programs across the state.
“The government never reached out to the school districts to let them know this was coming,” said Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks. “School boards will set their budget in the spring of the previous year, meaning this cut is coming mid-year.”
This funding was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate last session as a way to ensure that schools will have the funding they needed this year, Kawasaki noted.
“Education has been severely hampered over the past few years,” Kawasaki added. “We, as a legislature, supported education this year, and we want to see it to its end and to pull the rug out from under teachers and kids mid-stream I think will be extremely damaging.”
“I think that we are really going to have to scrub this budget that we get from the administration. I mean, they failed to give us the information in a timely manner and now the fact that they’re basically dropping this in our laps without talking to leadership in the Senate or the House I think is cause for alarm.”
Freshman Rep. Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, said he is incredibly concerned about the Fairbanks school district and other school districts across the state.
“It’s money that’s already been budgeted for and allocated to programs. So, that’s going to be critical to retaining teachers and maintaining well-rounded programs,” Hopkins said. “This was forward funding specifically to avoid having to give teachers pink slips like we’ve had to do in the past.”
Fairbanks Republican Rep. Bart LeBon pointed to his previous experience on the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board in relaying his concern over education funding cuts handed down from the governor this week.
“I know from my days on the school board, the school board treats that funding as much a part of their budget as anything else,” LeBon said. “The school district has planned that budget with that money in mind, so it’s a set back. This is not a case where that money hasn’t been appropriated; it’s planned for in all their individual budgets.”
During a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday morning, Office of Management and Budget Director designee Donna Arduin noted that it was the administration’s goal to fund Senate Bill 38, an appropriations bill responding to the Anchorage earthquake earlier this winter, without taking additional money out of general funds.
LeBon noted that he understands the need to transfer funds toward the disaster relief effort, but said he feels like there could have been better places to take the funding.
“I don’t want to sound critical of the recipients of that money, we did have an earthquake and issues surrounding that, certainly,” LeBon said Tuesday. “But I wish we could find some place other than education funding to pull that from. That wasn’t special funding for schools, that was core program funding.”
Fairbanks Republican Sen. Click Bishop, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, has seven school districts in his Senate district. Bishop said he found it “odd” that the administration had not reached out to school districts before making the cut.
“This money is already baked into these districts’ budgets. That money has already been factored in,” Bishop said. “I don’t support it, no way, no how.”
The slash to education funding would cut about $2 million just from the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, a budget item that FNSB School District Superintendent Karen Gaborik said makes “no sense.”
“I was incredulous when I read Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed $20 million cut to education funding in the current fiscal year. He was an Alaskan superintendent and he knows how school district operations work — contracts have been implemented and commitments have been made,” Gaborik wrote in a statement emailed to the News-Miner on Tuesday. “Eight months into the fiscal year to suggest cutting funds that have already been allocated makes no sense.”
In addition to rolling back significant education funding, Dunleavy’s supplemental budget proposal would cut nearly $3 million, about a quarter of this year’s planned allocation from the Village Public Safety Officer program, which works to provide law enforcement in rural communities across the state.
Bishop expressed concern last week about the lack of even a mention of the VPSO program during Dunleavy’s State of the State address. Now, he said, he is concerned about the lack of funding.
“I know some of our organizations, they might not have the VPSO positions filled right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not actively out there trying to recruit,” Bishop said Tuesday. “To bring that money back into the general fund, it’s sending the wrong message. The administration wants to be strong on crime and the VPSOs are an integral part of public safety.”
Hopkins added that this lack of funding will likely keep many rural communities from receiving any public safety assistance.
“Many of these places already don’t have VPSOs. Those positions are largely funded by local non-profits like Tanana Chiefs Conference and what they’re cutting is likely funding to those positions still available, which means these villages that have no law enforcement. They need it, but won’t be getting it.”
Kawasaki accused Dunleavy of breaking his campaign promises.
“We got bipartisan support for the VPSO program to ensure that rural Alaska, which is facing a lot of the same public safety issues, was covered. We can’t afford to put a trooper in every village, but we can afford a lower cost alternative that still keeps people safe,” Kawasaki said. “I think he’s broken his promise to public safety for all Alaskans, especially those who don’t live in Wasilla, the Mat-Su or Anchorage.”
SB 39, like all other legislation, will need to be passed through the Senate and the House before becoming law. The governor’s official operating budget proposal is set to released Feb 13.
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.