School funding crunch sparks outcry
An emotionally charged standing-room-only crowd packed the Jan. 14 town hall meeting at Town Center in Eagle River.
For more than two hours, teachers, parents and students offered passionate testimony against educational staff budget cuts.
Area teachers are already stressed to the maximum, they said. Previous cuts have resulted in fewer teachers, less support staff and less money for essentials. And some classrooms have doubled in size, from 20 to more than 40 students.
“There are days when I don’t sit down once,” Eagle River High social studies teacher Valerie Spencer said.
State Reps. Dan Saddler, Lora Reinbold and Bill Stoltze, and Sens. Fred Dyson and Anna Fairclough replied that the fiscal budget is already stretched to the maximum. There is no extra money available for education or any other program. Oil prices are down and the state is struggling.
“Alaska’s fiscal picture is very different,” Fairclough said. “What I need from you is to help me decide where that extra money is going to come from.”
A few suggestions filtered in but the majority of the evening centered upon the frustrations of teachers who not only feel overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, but also fear for their jobs.
That fear is not unfounded. This year’s proposed budget, announced Tuesday, Jan. 21, slashes $23 million off Anchorage School District’s funding. About 160 teacher positions will be cut.
“Starting teachers make about the same as someone who cleans sewer pipes,” Spencer said.
Alpenglow Elementary teacher Jennifer Waisanen worries that aide positions might be cut.
“Please, please, please help support funding,” she said. “There’s no more trimming of the fat. Last year, I didn’t have tape, I didn’t have white paper.”
Eagle River High student Annah Gershel is afraid that if more positions are cut, younger children won’t receive an adequate education.
“I lose faith and I lose hope,” she said.
George Pierce, music instructor at Eagle River High, wondered how we got ourselves into this situation.
“This didn’t happen overnight. We put all of our eggs in one basket, which was a 50-gallon barrel.”
Dyson had an answer.
“When we got a huge burst of money from the oil fields, the income tax and school tax were put away. If we want surety, we have to tax ourselves,” he said.
Still, it’s a tough sell.
“It you want a short life, go out and tell people you want to cut their PFDs,” he said.
Dmitri Shakhov didn’t sugarcoat his comments.
“You’ve already decided that there is no money, no solution, and next year we’ll be here again having the same smiley conversation,” he said.
According to Shakhov, there are 41 students in his son’s elementary school social studies class and 60 students in his band class.
“What’s going to happen next year by cutting jobs? Put your political viewpoints aside and do the right thing.”
His comments were greeted with applause.
“Whether you believe it or not, we’re already listening,” Fairclough said. “When we go to Juneau, we’ll find out what’s really in the checkbook.”
Last year’s budget, she said, was overly optimistic, and the price of oil has dropped.
“We are listening. But we are constrained by the revenue available to us,” she said.
Eagle River High instructor Melody Radcliffe was having none of that.
“We do our jobs and do what we can. We don’t say, ‘Sorry, there’s no room for your kids.’ So I’d appreciate that you’d stop saying that you can’t do anything because of constraints,” she said, to applause.
Stoltze remarked that the state is spending down its savings.
“It’s really going to come back and haunt us, the idea that we’re willing to fund every project that comes up,” he said.
Eagle River High senior Cierra Steinke thanked God that she’ll be out of ASD’s system next year. Her teachers have touched her on a personal level, she said, and that can’t happen in larger classroom settings.
“You can’t learn when you have 40 students,” Steinke said.
Reinbold believes that educators need to educate themselves on the facts.
“We need to have a discussion on optimal classroom size,” she said. “Are we overstressing teachers? I think in many cases, we are.”
Eagle River High language arts teacher Clinton Holloway had a more practical suggestion.
“Alaskans like to live on the cheap on other people’s dime. Instead of saying, ‘Where’s the money?’ we should be saying, ‘Are we willing to pay a few more cents a gallon?’
“Times are lean,” Holloway added. “You can’t squeeze oil out of rocks.”