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News-Miner Editorial

End teacher layoff warnings: Alaska needs a consistent means of advance-funding its education system

News-Miner opinion: Teachers in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District won’t be receiving layoff warnings this year, no doubt a welcome relief after what has been a fairly regular annual occurrence.

It’s not that teachers get laid off each year; they mostly don’t.

The annoyance is that layoff warnings are sent out when several weeks later it is clarified that no layoffs will occur, making the warnings unnecessary. The reason this happens is because state education funding and, to a lesser extent, local contribution to schools, hasn’t been getting settled until well after school districts in the state set their budgets in the spring.

If school district officials decide layoffs might be necessary for the following school year because the political environment of the moment suggests school funding might be reduced, then layoff warnings will be sent out at the end of the current school year according to dates set in labor contracts.

That didn’t happen this year because the Legislature last year, in House Bill 287, approved two years of funding for the state’s public schools — about $1.22 billion for fiscal year 2018-19 and the same amount again for 2019-20. It’s called forward-funding of education and has been sought for years.

It’s a sensible idea.

It can be difficult for school districts to retain teachers amid funding uncertainty. Most people, in education and elsewhere, want to have some level of financial stability in their life and will seek employment that can provide it. Being subject to an annual layoff warning is not indicative of stability.

But sensible ideas can and do end up in the legal system. And this one may be heading there because it has become a subject of disagreement between the Legislature and Gov. Mike Dunleavy and is now one of the topics of the special session the governor has called.

This is a power struggle between the legislative and executive branches. By forward-funding education through legislation former Gov. Bill Walker signed into law, Gov. Dunleavy — or so the argument goes — cannot use his line-item veto authority to reduce it. It’s already in law.

Gov. Dunleavy had proposed cutting state aid to public schools by about 25% for fiscal 2019-20 but now says he will drop that effort if the Legislature reverses itself on forward-funding, which it wants to do also for fiscal 2020-21.

The governor is trying to avoid a legal fight but appears ready to battle if need be. His attorney general argues, in an April 9 letter to legislative leaders, that the 2018 legislation to appropriate revenue from a later budget year violates the Alaska Constitution by dedicating future funds for a specific purpose, by not following the specified budget process, and by circumventing the governor’s line-item veto authority.

The attorney general’s arguments shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

The Legislature isn’t budging, though, with its leaders stating they are on solid legal ground, as determined by their attorneys. An April 10 memo from the Legislature’s Division of Legal and Research Services notes that the Constitution states the governor “is responsible for the faithful execution of the laws” and that therefore the administration should release the education funds for fiscal 2019-20 as the law signed by former Gov. Walker requires.

The administration has argued that because the budget proposal in the Legislature doesn’t include education funding — because it was approved by the 2018 Legislature — that there actually is no funding for the coming fiscal year.

It’s a tangle. And teachers, students and parents are all tied up in it.

However it works out between the legislative and executive branches, forward-funding of public schools is important for Alaska’s schools. The outcome, though, could ultimately be left to the third branch of government — the courts.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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