Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed deep cuts to education funding from kindergarten through 12th grade. Those cuts could more than decimate the budgets for school districts in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, according to two superintendents of regional school districts.
The Lower Kuskokwim School District is the biggest district in the region. It oversees about 28 schools, and most of its budget depends on state funding. That’s about $88 million. Gov. Dunleavy’s current proposal would slash $15 million from that $88 million. LKSD Superintendent Daniel Walker calls it “unprecedented.”
"It would force, probably, massive amounts of staffing cuts across the board from administration, teachers, classroom aid, to all of the other support staff. You know, reducing hours for probably custodians, maintenance staff, really all of the above. There would not be a part that would be left untouched by that level of cuts,” said Walker.
LKSD has seen cuts before, but not on this scale, says Walker. As one of the biggest districts in Alaska it could maybe absorb some shortfalls in funding, but this current proposed cut won't let that happen.
"We're not able to even come close to absorbing that amount," Walker said.
LKSD is also trying to move two schools because of erosion accelerated by climate change. One of the schools is Newtok. The entire village of Newtok is moving to a new site, Mertarvik. Napakiak, a village 12 miles from Bethel, is also in danger of losing its school to erosion. Walker says that the funds to tackle those construction projects don’t fall under the district’s operating budget, but other state agencies that would supply funds for those projects are also looking at cuts in the Dunleavy budget.
"So the consequence of that would be, at best, a delay in funding, and at worst, no funding," Walker said.
The new governor also proposed to cut $20 million in this year’s funding for school districts. The Legislature approved those extra funds last year as supplemental appropriations. LKSD’s share is about $1 million. After the Alaska Legislature approved those funds for this current fiscal year, LKSD already worked that money into its spending plans. What’s frustrating now, Walker says, is that those funds could be taken away seven months into the fiscal year.
He says that the legislature also approved $1.5 million in extra funds for the upcoming fiscal year. With the current uncertainty around the budget, Walker doesn’t know if LKSD will see those funds either. And LKSD isn’t the only local school district to feel the pinch. The Kuspuk School District oversees nine schools in the Upper Kuskokwim region. Kuspuk Superintendent Bernard Grieve says that they are already “bare-bones” when it comes to staff. Those schools have smaller class sizes, and some only have two teachers to staff the entire school.
"And if you have just one teacher there, something happens to that one teacher or they’re out sick, then you can’t operate school for the day," Grieve said.
Grieve says that Kalskag is growing, and that they need to hire another teacher, but with the cuts he doesn’t think that would happen. LKSD’s Walker says that he has contacted state Sen. Lyman Hoffman and Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky about the cuts. Right now, he’s trying to make sure no one panics just yet.
"We're really in the first quarter of a four quarter game here, and there's a lot that is yet to happen," Walker said.
Rep. Zulkosky has criticized Gov. Dunleavy’s proposed budget. She vowed to protect rural schools and other services as part of her campaign last year. The legislature has about three months left in the session to figure out how to handle the governor's proposed budget.